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Text by Karen KISSANE

Latest update : 2014-05-31

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen has called journalists “self-proclaimed elites” out of touch with ordinary people, cosy members of a system they don’t want changed. Yet the media now stand accused of having been too soft on Le Pen’s party.

Following the historic victory of her right-wing National Front (FN) party in recent European parliamentary elections, a debate has broken out in France about whether lily-livered news coverage of Le Pen's campaign helped propel the politician's rise to power (the FN won 24 of France’s 74 seats, more than any other party).

“The media have created a vote for the National Front despite themselves,” political analyst Olivier Duhamel, a former socialist member of the European Parliament, concluded recently.

During the campaign, the media focus in France was not on proposed policies for the European Parliament, as it should have been, but on the relatively insignificant question of how many seats Le Pen would win, he said.

Duhamel complained that the media “are unaware of what they are doing and, unconsciously, to sell their stories or to keep up with other media, they all asked the question, ‘Will the National Front finish first?’”

'Self-fulfilling prophecy'

Duhamel is not the only one to suggest that the French media have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a Sunday debate on the radio show Le Secret des Sources broadcast via France Culture, a journalist from the online investigative and opinion journal Mediapart, Marine Turchi, argued that many media articles during the campaign failed to challenge Le Pen’s policies and reported her views without criticism or analysis.

She said journalists often followed “the story line that Marine Le Pen wants them to follow” – how her party, once renowned for its racism, had changed, or how the FN was ahead in the polls. This became “a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Even during the campaign, there was sharp criticism of allegedly sycophantic coverage of Le Pen. In an article in the weekly French news magazine “Le Nouvel Observateur” on April 4, political analyst Bruno Roger-Petit savaged the free rein he says was offered Le Pen when she appeared on the interview program Des Paroles Des Actes (Words and Deeds) on national broadcaster France 2 on April 10.

The show was made-to-measure for Le Pen, who was given the right to veto guests with whom she did not wish to debate, Roger-Petit wrote. He accused the program’s host, David Pujadas, of abrogating all journalistic responsibility: “By bending to the whims of the president of the FN, he offered free propaganda on prime-time TV. A crime against public-service television.”

Pujadas, for his part, argued that the arrangement had been “part of a relationship of trust… When organising a political debate, face-to-face, well, it’s between two consenting individuals. We can’t force someone to talk with someone else.”

Media were also pummelled over coverage of the election results. Left-leaning daily Libération outraged its readers with a cover picture of a triumphantly beaming Le Pen and the headline “La France FN” on May 26. The headline was widely interpreted as suggesting the whole nation had swung to the far right.

'Election wins overstated'

But it is possible that the media outcry over the result might be overstated, according to Mediapart blogger Mohamed Bentahar. The FN scored 25 percent of votes cast, only 4.7 millon of France’s 44.6 million registered voters. The FN vote came to “barely 10 percent of all registered”, he writes.

Libération was seen to be scrambling to retrieve its position with its placatory cover the next day. It portrayed a screaming Marianne, the female figure emblematic of the French republic, and the headline “FN: Call to action”.

Bentahar, too, argues that the media have helped Le Pen craft the FN’s “new look” to describe a party whose policies have, in reality, not changed in 30 years, and whose adherents are still known for their racist comments.

He cites as one example Le Pen’s father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who reportedly said at a campaign function in Marseille that the solution to over-population – and by extension, Europe’s “immigration problem” – was the deadly Ebola virus. His remarks were widely reported in the French press.

Whether or not Le Pen’s relationship with the press was overly friendly during the campaign, it reached a new low last week when Le Pen’s chief of staff Philippe Martel was accused of keeping dossiers on individual journalists.

Martel was quoted in the weekly political magazine “Le Point” as saying that the FN’s media strategy included a "deadly attack" on journalists – a profession, he said, which the French public "detested". The strategy includes gathering information on where journalists had studied and where they lived, the article said.

The party has for years been accused of keeping dossiers on journalists and during the campaign Marine Le Pen attacked a journalist on BFM-TV, Apolline de Malherbe, over her background. Le Pen accused Malherbe of being a member of the elite because she had gone to one of France’s most prestigious universities, Sciences Po.

Martel reportedly cited the encounter to "Le Point" as an example of the FN campaign against journalists, saying, “That was nothing. That is just the beginning.”

Martel later denied holding any files on journalists, despite the evidence that Le Pen had been informed of Malherbe’s educational background.

But the media honeymoon, such as it was, appears to be over.

Date created : 2014-05-31


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