The shameful legacy of the Bolloré empire

The description of contemporary far-right media outlets in France as ‘pluralist’ is a euphemism that denies the continuity of a nationalist and xenophobic journalistic tradition that began in the Belle Epoque and flourished until the end of the Second World War.

‘When so many newspapers lean to the left, don’t we have the right to have one on the centre-right?’ In an appearance on the 8 o’clock news show on France’s TF1 TV channel on 23 August last year, Nicolas Sarkozy lavished unqualified praise upon his ‘friend,’ the media mogul Vincent Bolloré. When it came to discussing Bolloré’s recent purchase of the weekly Journal du Dimanche (JDD), however, he neglected to acknowledge the newspaper’s striking ideological reorientation since Geoffroy Lejeune’s appointment as editor-in-chief. But there is no denying that the JDD’s new editorial line, like those of the free-to-air TV channel CNews or the Bolloré-owned radio station Europe 1, is now diametrically opposed to the values espoused by the ‘centre-right’ media. In spite of all the evidence, the journalists and directors of these outlets employ the same choice of euphemism as Sarkozy, describing themselves as pluralist and open and presenting their broadcasts or pages as spaces where all opinions are respected.1

This silence or denial undoubtedly masks a certain unease towards a journalistic tradition that was born during the Belle Époque and flourished up to the end of the Second World War. Until then, the far-right press had always been able to impose its ideas, its vocabulary, and its worldview, through the likes of the antisemitic journalist and politician Édouard Drumont and the nationalist Robert Brasillach. It began with the Dreyfus Affair, the political scandal that split French society in 1894 after an artillery officer of Jewish descent was falsely accused of passing on military secrets to Germany, and lasted until the Nazi collaboration. Of course, the far-right did not disappear in the decades following the Second World War – far from it. But ever since then it has been excluded from the mainstream media, and its legacy still carries an inflammatory stigma. At a time when the reactionary press is experiencing a new golden age, however, it is important to acknowledge the profound kinship between Bolloré’s media empire and this long tradition of nationalist and xenophobic journalism.

The enemies within

Of course, the Breton magnate has not deployed all of the titles owned by his Vivendi group to the same extent in his media crusade. The magazines in the Prisma group, which Bolloré bought in 2021, have mostly had their budgets cut and now engage in low-cost journalism designed to synergise with the group’s other activities. There is no doubt, however, that a channel like CNews or a weekly paper like the new Journal du Dimanche are continuing the enduring traditions of the far-right press. They share with the anti-Dreyfusard newspapers of the late 19th century a desire to defend at all costs what they see as a beleaguered France, one which internal enemies threaten to corrupt.

It is important to remember how much the press helped to popularise antisemitism from the 1890s onwards: Drumont’s anti-Jewish campaigns in La Libre Parole may have been particularly brutal, but a large portion of the national and regional press remained hostile to Dreyfus for a long time, even as more and more proof of his innocence came to light. The French political theorist and intellectual Charles Maurras expressed perhaps better than anyone else the need for a scapegoat to unite the nation and give it a collective wake-up call, going so far as to describe antisemitism as a ‘godsend’ in an infamous article in L’Action Française, a journal associated with the monarchist movement of the same name.2

The times may have changed, as has the identity of the unassimilable foreigner, but the pursuit of scapegoats goes on. CNews broadcasts reiterate their accusations against Muslims and people of foreign origin ad nauseam in the repetitive nature so typical of 24/7 news channels. In a similar vein, Geoffroy Lejeune has imposed his obsession with identity upon every issue of the Journal du Dimanche since his appointment as editor-in-chief. The previous editorial team, who resigned from the newspaper en masse in 2023 in protest at the publication’s new far-right orientation, fought to have a paragraph added to the ethical charter stipulating a rejection of ‘racist, sexist, and homophobic comments.’3 The management’s refusal to include this paragraph bore all the hallmarks of an avowal, if not a manifesto.

Vendors selling the L’Action Française in 1909. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The glorification of violence

Bolloré’s media outlets zealously challenge democratic institutions, which they accuse of weakness, or even complicity, in the face of mass immigration. This stigmatisation of the elites as corrupt, under foreign influence, and incapable of defending national interests bears obvious parallels to the discourse of the far-right press during the Belle Époque or the interwar period. Of course, hostility to the Republic was more overt in those newspapers than it is today in Bolloré’s media outlets. But genuine incitements to rebellion have been seen in the conservative Valeurs Actuelles, which at the time was under Lejeune’s stewardship. In April 2021, for example, the weekly newspaper published an interview in which the businessman and populist conservative politician Philippe de Villiers called for insurrection,4 followed by an opinion column in which several former generals threatened to seize power in order to save the nation.5 These articles received extensive coverage on CNews talk shows, which welcomed and celebrated their writers. With their endorsement of anti-republican agitation, Lejeune, the French conservative journalist Charlotte d’Ornellas, and the Valeurs Actuelles team were essentially following in the footsteps of the editorial board of L’Action Française, who explicitly encouraged the population to rebel in February 1934.

This violent tone in the discourse of the Bolloré media sphere is one of the principal elements it has inherited from the far-right journalism of the interwar period. In the 1920s and 1930s, the same kind of extreme language was common in newspapers that were explicitly tempted by fascist or Nazi ideologies. But the hateful abuse spewed by Robert Brasillach or the fascist intellectual Lucien Rebatet in the antisemitic newspaper Je Suis Partout had its counterparts in the pages of L’Action Française, despite the literary pretensions of contributors such as Charles Maurras or Jacques Bainville. As the French historian Michel Winock writes, L’Action Française ‘broke with its traditionally moderate, royalist style and assumed all the excesses of polemic, ad hominem attacks, and calls for murder.’6 In fact, the greatest success of CNews commentators in recent years has been precisely their ability to breed a taste for antagonism and outrage in the media. This violence is targeted particularly, in an almost ritualised way, at figures on the left or in the centre: even regular guests on talk shows seem to serve no purpose other than to act as foils for their opponents. During the last presidential election campaign, the channel’s combative atmosphere even ended up rubbing off onto other audiovisual media. This triumph of an exaggerated radicalism, which also characterises Cyril Hanouna’s TV broadcasts on the C8 channel, may be the Bolloré model’s most resounding success.

Hatred of the media

Meanwhile, hatred of the mainstream media continues to mobilise the far-right press: just as their predecessors did, these journalists express a fierce hostility to their mainstream counterparts and the values they champion. The first issue of the Journal du Dimanche published after its relaunch, on 6 August 2023, was a textbook example. The glaring factual error on the front page—a photograph of a march in honour of a teenager named Enzo was used to illustrate the death of a different Enzo—could have been excused by the difficult conditions in which the issue was prepared. But Geoffroy Lejeune has obstinately refused to acknowledge the mistake, despite the family’s protests and in contempt of all journalistic ethics.

The rejection of major newspapers and their alleged unanimity also leads CNews commentators, like the new JDD team, to choose ‘alternative’ media narratives. As always in such cases, this carries the risk of publishing ‘fake news,’ or even relaying propaganda. Since the relaunch of the Journal du Dimanche, several former RT journalists and members of Kremlin networks in France have acted as reporters covering international news. In an apparent paradox that once again recalls another period in history, the JDD exalts patriotic values while simultaneously embracing the manipulation of information orchestrated by a foreign dictatorship.

This hatred of mainstream journalism is often accompanied by a desire to compete with it on its own turf by aping its editorial models, and sometimes by taking over media brands in order to turn them against their own history. The way Geoffroy Lejeune and his team subverted the editorial line of the JDD is particularly striking. Although the newspaper’s physical appearance remained unchanged, issues published after August 2023 often seem like imitations, pastiches, or even crude caricatures designed to mislead readers. On 27 August, for example, the front page featured a photograph of the minister of national education, Gabriel Attal, in his office alongside an ‘exclusive’ claiming to reveal his ‘plan of attack’ for the new school year. The headline relied on the newspaper’s reputation in recent years for publishing leaks from the Élysée Palace or government ministries. But in reality, the new editorial team had no access to the minister or his entourage. As for the supposed revelations, the piece simply repeated information already widely available elsewhere.

A century before Bolloré, a French industrialist had already employed the strategy of taking over well-known newspapers in order to use them in a reactionary struggle. In the space of just a few years after the end of the First World War, the perfumer François Coty built up an extremely influential media empire, with the goal of promoting an explicitly fascist project. In 1922 he purchased Le Figaro, followed in 1928 by Le Gaulois, before merging the two papers. Like his modern-day successor, he repeatedly fired journalists who showed signs of resistance, replacing them with faithful lackeys. Under his leadership, the old bourgeois daily that was Le Figaro gradually became a mouthpiece for its owner’s unqualified xenophobia and antisemitism.

Of course, this analogy has its limits: François Coty was seeking to further his own political career and regularly contributed to his newspapers, to the point of officially becoming political director of Le Figaro in 1927. Bolloré’s strategy, by contrast, is based on discretion and silence. His role model is Rupert Murdoch, who has managed to successfully shape political life in the United States and the United Kingdom, developing a habit of winning elections without ever standing as a candidate himself. But the sudden transformation of the JDD shows that Bolloré’s crusade is becoming increasingly explicit, perhaps to the point of recklessness. For an industrial group that has refocused on media, the risk is in prioritising the ideological battle at the expense of economic rationality. It can be dangerous to try to change the historical identity of a newspaper too quickly, as the example of François Coty shows: he died in financial ruin after sinking hundreds of millions of francs into his media empire and ultimately even having to give up Le Figaro.

Éric Zemmour at the intersection of eras

No one today would dream of claiming to wield the influence of François Coty or the far-right press of the interwar period. On CNews shows, speakers even deny the appropriacy of the term ‘far-right’, as if it were a meaningless, irrelevant descriptor with no basis in reality: the Canadian conservative political commentator Mathieu Bock-Côté, for example, sees it as a ‘ghostly category,’ ‘more at home in demonology than political science.’7 Yet everything suggests that this ideology and journalistic movement are more powerful now than they have been at any time since the liberation of France in 1944-45. Bolloré is not directly responsible for this revival: the signs were already visible in the pages of Valeurs Actuelles as early as 2012, when Yves de Kerdrel became editor-in-chief of the conservative weekly. But the Vivendi group is now acting as a catalyser, uniting, combining, and concentrating forces that until recently were still scattered. The same unspoken rule is now imposed on every young journalist from reactionary circles who moves to CNews, Europe 1, or the Journal du Dimanche: never say where you come from or what ideology you serve.

This deliberate dissimulation is in stark contrast to the approach adopted by the newspaper La Croix in recent years, and particularly in recent months. Founded in 1883, the Catholic daily decided that the best way to avoid repeating its history was to confront it full-on: in 2023, to celebrate its 140th anniversary, it devoted a well-documented series to the antisemitic hatred expressed in its pages from the time of the Dreyfus Affair until the 1930s.8 Its editorial team’s awareness of the importance of the duty to remember is poles apart from Bolloré’s coddled young reporters, who prefer to ignore the journalistic tradition of which their outlets are a part.

One journalist, however, is an exception. Despite having long occupied a central position at CNews, the conservative essayist Éric Zemmour has never hidden his fascination with figures like Maurras or Bainville – far from the strategy of denial adopted by the rest of the Vivendi group. Hosting ‘Face à l’info’ on 29 September and 15 October 2020, he even went so far as to openly question Dreyfus’s innocence and to criticise the novelist Émile Zola’s role in the affair. He also repeatedly stated that the collaborationist wartime leader Marshal Pétain had saved French Jews, comments for which he will soon be retried for denying crimes against humanity.9

Zemmour has also never concealed his hatred for the mainstream media, nor the strategies he has employed to master its tools and use them against its own journalists. In an interview with Le Monde in April 2011, he justified his regular appearances on mainstream television, particularly on the liberal host Laurent Ruquier’s shows, as an attempt to get inside the ‘propaganda machine’ in order to ‘use the Left’s own weapons against it.’10

Though it initially served him well, this radical and forthright stance may have contributed to his failure in his 2022 campaign for the presidency, in which he seemed caught in the trap of his own excesses. But his attachment to the traditions of the far-right press and his intimate knowledge of the mainstream media world he so despises make him both a pioneer and a model for a generation of journalists now eager to follow his example. Although most of the new JDD team come from Valeurs Actuelles, some of its writers have a CV that links them even more clearly to the far right: Charlotte d’Ornellas, for example, has worked for the online conservative news platform Boulevard Voltaire, for the journal Présent, and for the television channel Libertés. Likewise, Pascal Meynadier writes under a pseudonym for the journal Élements, which was founded by Alain de Benoist, a political philosopher and a leading figure in the Nouvelle Droite (‘New Right’) movement. Nor was antisemitic territory overlooked when the new JDD team was formed: one of its writers, Marc Obregon, recently appeared alongside the author and conspiracy theorist Pierre Hillard, who has been making antisemitic comments for decades.

All of these journalists owe much to Zemmour, who has played a key role in liberating a discourse that had been kept firmly on the margins of the media sphere since the Second World War. With undoubtedly less talent, but perhaps with greater acumen, established at the heart of an empire that is determined to see their ideas triumph, in their own way they are continuing the legacy of François Coty and Charles Maurras.

 

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Published in cooperation with CAIRN International Edition, translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations.

The slogans of the CNews advertising campaign launched in May 2021 included: ‘Venez avec vos convictions, vous vous ferez une opinion !’ (Bring your own beliefs and make up your own mind!); ‘Pourquoi faudrait-il qu’on soit tous d’accord ?’ (Why should we all have to agree?); and ‘La liberté d’expression est-elle une espèce en voie de disparition ?’ (Is freedom of expression an endangered species?).

Charles Maurras, ‘L’exode moral,’ L’Action Française, 28 March 1911.

Statement by the Journal du Dimanche editorial board on 26 July 2023.

The weekly paper featured this interview on its front page with the headline ‘J’appelle à l’insurrection’ (I’m calling for insurrection) on 15 April 2021.

Jean-Pierre Fabre-Bernadac, ‘‘Pour un retour de l’honneur de nos gouvernants’: 20 généraux appellent Macron à défendre le patriotisme,’ Valeurs Actuelles, 21 April 2021.

Michel Winock, ‘L’Action française,’ in Michel Winock (ed.), Histoire de l’extrême droite en France (Paris: Seuil, 1993), 155.

‘Il faut en parler,’ CNews, 4 September 2021.

Isabelle de Gaulmyn, ‘Aux racines de l’antisémitisme,’ La Croix, July 2023.

On 5 September 2023, the Cour de Cassation overturned the verdict of the court of appeal, which had acquitted him, and ordered a new trial.

Raphaëlle Bacqué, ‘La ‘machine’ Zemmour,’ Le Monde, 4 April 2011.

Published 24 April 2024
Original in French
Translated by Cadenza Academic Translations
First published by Esprit / Eurozine

Contributed by Esprit © Alexis Lévrier / Esprit / Eurozine

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