French media embrace Sarkozy's Libya action
is a freelance print and television journalist now based in London. She was previously a journalist and presenter on the TV channel Direct 8 in France.
Nicolas Sarkozy has not had it this good for years. Despite his dismal personal poll ratings, more than 66% of French people approve of their president's Libya initiative, and the media are mostly behind him too.
Christophe Barbier, editor of L'Express, said: "Nicolas Sarkozy will be the president who rallied the democratic nations against Gaddafi." Le Point went further with its front-page headline: "Sarkozy the Emperor."
Surveying the media scene last weekend in Paris (above), I found the independent online news service Mediapart had been one of the few critical voices - perhaps not surprising since its founder, Edwy Plenel, a former editor of Le Monde, is a long-time opponent of Sarkozy. He recently published a book about Sarkozy: Le President de Trop (The President of too Much).
So why have most of the French media been so supportive of Sarkozy when the international media have been more sceptical?
Sarkozy's close friendship with French media bosses is well known in France. Many of the TV channels and major newspapers are owned by big business: TF1, the first ever channel in France, belongs to Bouygues, a leader in construction; Le Figaro is owned by Dassault, a manufacturer of aircraft including the Rafale jet fighter. In a recent book, Crisis in Sarkozistan, the author, who remains anonymous (common for journalists in France to protect their careers), claims it is difficult for journalists at Le Figaro to write critical articles on Sarkozy and his policies.
And in a recent book, OFF: What Sarkozy Should Never Have Told Us, the journalists Nicolas Domenach and Maurice Szafran describe Sarkozy's efforts to develop a close relationship with journalists by making them feel part of his exclusive inner circle. For them, Sarkozy developed "an intimacy he meticulously managed with most of the major political journalists for 20 years". They acknowledge being seduced by his charm and the sense of privilege and complicity of sharing information with him, at the risk of compromising their objectivity.
In the case of Libya, Bernard-Henri Levy (aka. BHL), a well-known philosopher and prominent figure in the French media (he sits on the Board of Le Monde), has played a key role in legitimising Sarkozy's intervention. BHL is seen as a representative of the Left, making him an excellent alibi for the right-wing president.
A number of news magazines reported BHL's side of the story, with accounts of how influential he had been and how he met the Libyan rebels in Libya and organised a critical meeting with Sarkozy at the Elysee on 10 March.
Le Point and other media even portrayed BHL as the "other minister of foreign affairs". In fact, while foreign minister Alain Juppe was in Brussels negotiating an action plan for Libya, the President caught him off guard by recognising the Libyan opposition - with BHL subsequently announcing that France would open an embassy in Benghazi.
But was it BHL's role to become the Elysee spokeperson? Apart from Le Monde, which asked the question on 11 March, there were few critics among journalists.
Canard Enchaine, the satirical weekly paper, and Mediapart, both independent media outlets, analysed the political objectives of the international intervention. Edwy Plenel is convinced that, "from day one of his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy has been looking for his war". Some question the timing, noting that Sarkozy's approval ratings have sunk to an all-time low of 30%.
The Libyan intervention highlights the relationship between many French journalists and political power. It is nothing new: de Gaulle's Minister of Information, Alain Peyrefitte, was known to call the editor of the television news to find out what would be in the programme, and sometimes make changes.
Sarkozy's relationships are more subtle. His powerful friends don't exert direct censorship, and his intimacy with some journalists is hard to pin down: does their access to him make their reports more genuine, or reduce them to his communication agents?
Veronique Forge is a freelance print and television journalist now based in London. She was previously a journalist and presenter on the TV channel Direct 8 in France.