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Russia's RT television launches French channel

© AFP/File / by Clare BYRNE, Frédéric POUCHOT | The Russian headquarters of state-owned broadcaster RT, which is starting a French-language channel with a team of 50 journalists in Paris

PARIS (AFP) - 

Russian state broadcaster RT is set to launch a French-language channel on Monday, seven months after being labelled a spreader of "deceitful propaganda" by President Emmanuel Macron.

RT (formerly Russia Today) already has a foothold in France through a French-language website and a popular YouTube channel with videos dubbed or subtitled in French, some of which have chalked up hundreds of thousands of views.

The launch of a TV network will see its staff of 50 journalists working from a new studio in western Paris compete in the highly competitive rolling-news sector in France.

"Fingers crossed we'll go on air tonight," Xenia Fedorova, RT's station manager and editor in chief, told journalists on Monday.

But with the channel having been accused of meddling in the US election along with state news agency Sputnik and spreading rumours about Macron during this year's presidential election, French regulators are on their guard.

The head of France's CSA broadcasting authority, Olivier Schrameck, has warned that body will be watching RT's every step and will intervene quickly in the event of any "anomalies".

In Britain, RT has already received 14 warnings from regulator Ofcom about reporting deemed untruthful or biased, particularly on Syria -- where Russia has propped up President Bashar al-Assad -- and Ukraine.

Russia Today was set up in the mid-2000s to counter what Russian President Vladimir Putin saw as the dominance of American and British international media organisations and their allegedly pro-Western bias.

The channel is seen by its critics as giving a platform to conspiracy theorists as well as far-right or anti-establishment figures who emphasise Western hypocrisy or corruption.

- 'Mainstream bubble' -

But it is in America that RT has come in for the greatest censure.

In September, the US Justice Department ordered the channel to register its operations as a "foreign agent", and Twitter has banned advertising from the channel and from Sputnik.

At his annual December press conference Putin dismissed the allegations of meddling as the stuff of a "spy thriller".

Back in France, Fedorova insists the network has no more of a hidden agenda than any other state-funded global network, such as BBC World, Al-Jazeera or France 24.

"We are not coming to France with the intention of broadcasting fake or partial news," she told AFP in an interview in October.

"Our slogan is: Dare to question. We want to encourage viewers to ask questions and to think outside the information bubble of the mainstream media," she said, adding that editorial decisions would be made in Paris, not Moscow.

With a launch budget of around 20 million euros ($23.6 million), the French channel is one of the most ambitious projects to date for RT, which already broadcasts in English, Spanish and Arabic.

The Paris launch takes place seven months after Putin was hosted by Macron for talks after years of friction over the wars in Ukraine and Syria.

Speaking alongside Putin at a press conference, Macron accused RT and Sputnik of being "agents of influence... and deceitful propaganda" who spread "defamatory untruths".

His camp had complained of a "smear campaign" during the French presidential campaign after Sputnik reported comments from a conservative MP accusing Macron of being a "US agent" backed by a "gay lobby".

RT hit back, accusing Macron of threatening freedom of speech.

- Hiring woes -

The tone of RT's existing French coverage suggests that critics of the centrist 39-year-old will be well served.

While French media outlets were generally impressed by Macron's engagement with young Africans on a recent visit to the continent, RT focused on criticism of a throwaway remark seen by some as derogatory towards Burkina Faso's president.

The Russian network also continued to play up protests against Macron's recent labour reforms long after the movement had begun to peter out.

Florent Parmentier, a Russia expert at Sciences Po university in Paris, said RT prided itself on antagonising mainstream commentators and politicians.

"So they give space to the views of the European far right but also to Occupy Wall Street... in a very distinctive style that is much more impertinent than most other networks," he said.

"The idea of RT is: 'we will tell you things you will not hear elsewhere'," he said, emphasising its focus on what it portrayed as the "hypocrisy" of the West on issues such as human rights, corruption and foreign meddling.

But despite its best efforts, the network has struggled to attract top French talent.

In an interview this month with French daily Le Monde, Fedorova complained of "political pressure on people who want to work with RT or speak well of it".

by Clare BYRNE, Frédéric POUCHOT

© 2017 AFP