Executive Director, Sciences Po Journalism School
Recent months have been marked by a persistent and troubled wave of protests in France known as the Yellow Vests movement. On the ground, journalists have been insulted and attacked while the news media itself has suffered the biggest fall in trust in years.
The Yellow Vests protests, which began in autumn 2018 and has led to widespread violence on the streets, show no sign of running out of steam. The protesters have no identifiable leader, structure, or coherent agenda which has made it hard for journalists to tell their story. And yet the protestors consider the media to be part of the problem – critical of their movement and over-supportive of the government. Reporters have faced verbal and physical attacks, with a number thrown to the ground and even mugged. French journalists have likened covering the protests to reporting from a war zone.
Despite the violence, the Yellow Vests continue to attract public support. Many citizens believe the media have sensationalised events and have interviewed polarised or extreme witnesses. As a result, we see a large fall in overall trust in the news to just 24%, one of the lowest in our survey.
But here’s the paradox: BFM TV, which has been broadcasting breaking news and information since 2005, is at the same time the most criticised channel and one of the most popular in France. (see data on opposite page). Reporters working for BFM TV now use a no-logo microphone windscreen so the brand will not be easily identified and are protected by security guards when they report live.
The protests have largely been organised through social media, including through private and public Facebook Groups. Kremlin-funded RT France also helped sustain the movement through extensive broadcast coverage – supplemented by unmediated Facebook Lives. Our data show 3% using RT France online weekly and even higher usage (7%) from heavy social media users. President Macron has described RT as a tool for ‘influence-peddling’. Draft French legislation to combat what the government considers ‘fake news’ includes provisions to take foreign broadcasters off the air if they attempt to ‘destabilise’ the country.1
In response to the Yellow Vests’ demands, President Emmanuel Macron and his government have organised the ‘Great National Debate’, a chance for citizens to input ideas to improve quality of life in France. More than 1.9 million contributions were submitted online and about 10,000 nationwide discussions were held.
Emmanuel Macron has also been on the defensive over the behaviour of his former security officer. Alexandre Benalla was sacked by the President after Le Monde revealed that he attacked a protestor during May Day demonstrations in Paris. Several months later, the subscription-based investigative publication Mediapart revealed that he’d been unlawfully using diplomatic passports.
While the French State has been pushing for a EU-wide tax on the big tech companies, many news organisations in France continue to struggle financially. The French news agency AFP (Agence-France-Presse), is looking to lose almost 100 staff At L’Express, the weekly newspaper created in 1953, 40 journalists are set to leave after unsuccessful attempts to charge for online content. But others are faring better. Le Monde grew digital subscriptions by 20% to 180,000 following a redesign and increasing the number of articles behind its paywall.2
Meanwhile public broadcaster France Télévisions is under mounting pressure, with falling audiences and government demands for greater efficiency. In a major restructuring plan they are getting rid of 2,000 out of 9,600 staff and have a plan to create more programmes that might attract younger audiences. Meanwhile the French are shifting their allegiances to online video services, with Netflix reaching 5m subscribers and Orange, one of the biggest telecom providers, making significant investments in original programming. One French minister, Gérald Damarnin, has suggested going even further and abolishing the ‘audio-visual fee’, which funds French public media – a tax of €139 per year for those that own a TV.
Another blow to trust came in February when a number of senior French journalists were suspended or fired for allegedly co-ordinating online harassment via a private Facebook group. The largely male ‘Ligue du Lol’ mocked women, including other journalists, using pornographic images and jokes about rape. The story was uncovered by the French daily Libération, many of whose journalists were involved, and became something of a ‘MeToo’ moment. Many journalists hope the revelations will help to clean up decades of sexism and out-of-date habits in French newsrooms.
Meanwhile, podcasts (25%) are still engaging French listeners, exploring soft news angles and gender issues, especially those produced by female journalists.
TV news reach continues to decline even if people still turn to this medium during moments of national crisis. The Yellow Vests protests have also boosted use of social media for news (42%) while French people are more likely to access news from a smartphone than a computer for the first time.
Trust in news in France is now the lowest (24%) in Europe – hit by coverage of the Yellow Vest protests. Trust in the 24-hour channel BFM has fallen from 5.9 to 4.9 (on a ten-point scale) over the past year and is now the least trusted brand in our list. Social media are also blamed (14% trust score) for spreading conspiracy theories, bias, and algorithmic filtering.