CNews, a Fox news network in France, surfs a wave of discontent

PARIS – It’s the news network that claims to tell viewers what the “awake” mainstream media won’t say. He says he is fighting for endangered free speech even as he has been fined by the government’s broadcasting regulator for inciting racial hatred.

This is CNews, which in just four years became France’s leading news channel for the first time in May by giving a megaphone to far-right politicians, climate opponents and supporters. leading the discredited idea of ​​using hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, as a cure for Covid-19.

The role model is Fox News – including clashing talking heads and inflammatory cultural topics – and it worked. Owned by French billionaire Vincent Bolloré, former chairman of media group Vivendi, CNews is increasingly helping to shape the national debate, particularly on hot topics such as crime, immigration and the place of Islam in France which are expected to influence next year’s presidential election.

The network’s extraordinary influence and controversial role in France was made even clearer this week, when its most popular host was kicked off the airwaves because he is seen as a likely presidential candidate – and one with real chance to reverse the race.

In a country where trust in the news media is very low, CNews has emerged at a time of particular discontent – in the aftermath of the 2018 Yellow Vests protests, which, like the election of Donald J. Trump in the United States, elicited a lot of soul-searching among journalists. Misunderstood by traditional media outlets, the protests reinforced the impression of a media disconnected from central Paris and ushered in a new era of sometimes violent clashes between journalists and people in the streets where they worked.

“People were fed up with political correctness and, in France, for 30, 40 years, information was in the hands of newspapers, televisions and dailies which all said the same thing”, declared Serge Nedjar, the boss. from CNews, explaining how his channel positioned itself in a country with four 24-hour news networks.

Unlike its competitors, CNews focused on “analysis and debate” on topics that Nedjar said most mattered to the French but had been ignored or insufficiently covered by the media: “crime, insecurity, immigration “.

He added: “We created this network by telling ourselves that we are talking about everything, including explosive topics. “

Mr Nedjar said he was unfamiliar with Fox News when CNews was formed and dismissed the comparisons. “There is the word ‘news’, and so much the better if it functions like Fox News,” he said, referring to the name of his network. “Fox News is doing great there, I hear.”

But critics say the problem isn’t with CNews’ choice of topics, but how it treats them. They say the emphasis on opinion, often underpinned by little reporting or fact-checking, propagates popular prejudices and deepens divides in a polarized society.

“It’s a way of taking the worst of public opinion, what we hear at the local bar, that we can no longer say anything, that we are not allowed to talk about it”, said Alexis Lévrier, media historian at the University of Reims.

During the start of the school year after summer vacation, CNews discovered a familiar formula of stoking racial and religious divisions in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to revitalize Marseille, the second largest city in France and, after decades of immigration from Africa, the one of the most diverse.

On CNews, a hostess and her guests, including a spokeswoman for the far-right National Rally, have repeatedly predicted the plan’s failure. Guests described Marseille as a lawless place of “enclaves” that no longer looked like France because the inhabitants were people of “non-European” origin.

Pascal Praud, one of the main hosts of CNews, teased Mr. Macron for sprinkling his speech in Marseille with 10-cent words like “miracle worker” and “palimpsest”.

Mr Nedjar said CNews favors figures who “are normal people” and “not pretentious”.

He added: “They don’t think they are Victor Hugo.”

The great personality of the network, Eric Zemmour, has become a national figure, and is the subject of two rulings by the government regulator. He does not hesitate to push the theory of the white nationalist conspiracy of the supposed great replacement of the population established by new arrivals from Africa. It inspired murders of white supremacists from Texas to New Zealand and has been avoided even by far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally.

“You have a French, white, Christian population of Greco-Roman culture” which is being replaced by a “Maghreb, African and predominantly Muslim population,” Zemmour said two weeks ago.

In two rulings on previous comments by Mr Zemmour, the government broadcasting regulator gave CNews formal notice and in March fined him 200,000 euros, or about $ 236,000, for speech inciting racial hatred. – the first time that an information network has faced such a sanction. Since June, the regulator – which is responsible for ensuring political balance in broadcasting – has also twice warned CNews for failing to provide a diversity of opinions or for giving an unfair share of time to the broadcast. branch of the far-right National Rally.

Mr Nedjar said last week that Mr Zemmour was exercising his freedom of expression and that the network was challenging the rulings. But it was Mr. Zemmour’s flirtation with the presidential candidacy that forced the network to take action on Monday. After the regulator ordered a limit on Mr. Zemmour’s airing time because he could be considered a political actor, CNews announced that he would cease appearing on his regular schedule.

CNews’ origins began in 2015, when Mr Bolloré took control of the Canal Plus broadcast network, including his struggling left-wing news channel i-Télé. Two years later, the channel was reborn under the name CNews.

In 2018, the yellow vests movement – led by French people on the geographic and economic periphery – surprised the media and the political establishment. Journalists came to be seen as adversaries and became targets for protesters, said Vincent Giret, who oversees news at Radio France, the public broadcaster.

“Today there is a part of France which does not feel represented by listening or watching the media,” said Mr. Giret.

At a recent press conference, Mr. Giret said Radio France would emphasize evidence-based journalism, neutrality and reporting, to avoid harming “democratic debate”.

“We avoid – because we thought about it – presenting ourselves as the anti-CNews,” he said.

But CNews’ success, media experts say, has influenced its competitors, including Radio France, which has just launched an opinion segment on its station France Inter.

“Our direct competitors, who spent their time saying they wouldn’t do CNews, only do CNews,” Nedjar said.

Over the summer, CNews’ power seemed to grow when its billionaire owner, Mr Bolloré, took control of a radio station, Europe 1. Some CNews hosts are now duplicating Europe 1.

Veteran journalist Patrick Cohen was one of many to leave Europe 1, fearing it could turn into a radio version of CNews.

“The purpose of these channels is not to seek the truth, but to seek controversy,” Cohen said. “Their role is to create divisions.

But Mr Cohen said he believes CNews’ influence over politics and next year’s election will be limited. Although it was the top-rated news channel in May, its audience share was lower than that of traditional networks, he said.

Others say that, like Fox News two decades earlier, CNews has filled a political void in the media landscape and pushed French conservatives further to the right.

“This is partly due to the Fox News effect, and it is completely changing the French political landscape,” said Julia Cagé, an economist at Sciences Po specializing in the media.

At the start of Mr. Macron’s five-year term, his aides monitored BFM, a CNN-style news channel that first fell behind by CNews in May, said Levrier, the media historian. Now, he said, they were glued to CNews. But BFM remains at the top of the general classification throughout the season.

Two years ago, some politicians – on the left, like the Greens, or in Mr. Macron’s centrist party – vowed never to appear on CNews. Many have since quietly turned to his studios.

While cautious about asserting the power of his network, Mr. Nedjar said on the burning issues, “CNews has slightly, modestly, managed to shake things up.” He said he thought the network made some government officials nervous because they thought it could help propel a candidate like Ms. Le Pen to power.

“I think they are worried about the influence of CNews, which I tell you is not huge,” Nedjar said. “But they are worried about the influence of CNews months before the election.”

Léontine Welsh contributed reports.

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