Will Nicolas Sarkozy be brought down by le Guido français?
By Daniel Hannan Last updated: July 10th, 2010
Tiens! as we Old Brussels Hands say. Eh bien, je jamais.
The latest Sarko scandal is, by French standards, a run-of-the-mill affair: wealthy heiress, hidden slush fund, illicit donations, envelopes full of cash. But here’s the difference: French people are now able to read about each new allegation in France. The story has been broken largely by a subscription-only news website founded by a former editor of Le Monde. The Internet has smashed the oligopoly hitherto enjoyed by France’s dowdy and deferential newspapers.
The sheer servility of the French print media has to be experienced to be believed. When, for example, it emerged that a former president had set up his mistress with a seat in the European Parliament, French readers were wholly dependent on foreign reports. The same was true of many of François Mitterand’s peccadilloes, both sexual and political. Not until after he died was his Vichyite past openly discussed.
When Jacques Chirac pardoned more than a thousand politicians who had been found guilty of corruption, no French newspaper so much as alluded to the fact that they had been accused. Indeed, when Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, pointed out that one of these politicians had been nominated as a European Commissioner, he was told by the President of the European Parliament to withdraw his remarks or risk prosecution.
Some foreigners laugh at the feebleness of French journalists. Others admire it. “Why can’t we be as grown-up as the French about these things?” say go-ahead metropolitan types. But the obsequiousness of French newspapers isn’t determined by their readers’ preferences. On the contrary, in few democracies do voters express such vehement contempt for their elected representatives. No, the reason that French reporters tend to lay off their politicians is because they have a symbiotic relationship with the government. They enjoy tax breaks and other perks, many of their newspapers are related to one or another of the political parties, and privacy laws are loaded against them.
They therefore frequently find themselves at odds with their readers. When France voted on the European Constitution five years ago, every newspaper except the Communist daily called for a Yes vote, leaving the No campaign to les bloggeurs. Guess who won?
Web-based news outlets are contributing to the decline of print media in the English-speaking world. In France, where a journalistic cartel has become reliant on political patronage, their opportunity is commensurately greater. Truly the Internet is a wonderful phenomenon.