Raymond Kuhn, professor of politics, Queen Mary, University of London
Did the French media conspire to destroy the presidential candidacy of François Fillon over the issue of his wife’s alleged non-existent job as his parliamentary assistant? Is Emmanuel Macron a candidate produced by the media? Does Marine Le Pen get a rough ride from the mainstream media in France?
These are just some of the many questions currently being asked about the contribution of the media to the 2017 French presidential campaign. And they are reasonable questions to ask. After all, the choice of who to succeed President Hollande will help determine France’s future over the next few years and beyond, with possible implications for the country’s status as a founder member of the European Union. Also, many French voters spend large amounts of time accessing political information via both traditional and social media – even those not massively interested in politics could hardly have failed to be aware of the allegations facing Fillon. In short, the power of the media – to forge or destroy candidates, to mobilize or demobilize voters, to shift public opinion in one direction or another –is a legitimate issue of public concern.
Yet the idea that the French media can make or break a candidate’s presidential campaign is hard to substantiate. In this respect the power of the media is hugely overestimated. Fillon was the target of virtually non-stop media criticism for almost a month, but still survived, mainly because his party could not agree on a replacement candidate: party politics trumped media character attacks. Moreover, while many voters, including his own supporters, expressed outrage at Fillon’s behaviour, levels of voting intentions in opinion polls never fell below 18 per cent. Negative media coverage changed fewer electoral choices than one might have assumed; instead many Fillon voters blamed the media rather than the candidate for the scandal. Further evidence of the lack of media power is that Macron’s candidacy was determined by Hollande’s presidential failures and Macron’s own ambition, rather than by a cabal of media owners, editors and journalists. And while much of the mainstream media have so far treated Macron with kid gloves, this could easily change if his electoral appeal starts to wane.
Nor does a theory of media conspiracy hold much water. For most media outlets the negative coverage of Fillon – a French version of personalized attack journalism – was not driven by partisan political considerations. Instead, straightforward news values and the highly competitive nature of media markets kept the story going. A financial scandal involving a recent former prime minister and the favourite at the start of January to become the next French president was bound to attract media attention. Add to this was the fact that the story was easily understandable way beyond the ranks of the political cognoscenti. This wasn’t climate change or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership; instead it was somebody in the public eye, caught with their hand in the cookie jar. For journalists and news editors, so-called “Penelopegate” was a no brainer as a news story, while for audiences it had many of the elements of a political soap opera. Not conspiracy therefore; just good commercial sense on the part of the media, illustrated by a significant increase in the circulation of the newspaper that broke the story and kept it simmering, the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné.
Fillon would probably have reimbursed the whole of his wife’s earnings to have been out of the media spotlight in the early weeks of the campaign. In contrast, Benoit Hamon, the Socialist party candidate, would have appreciated much more media coverage than he has received so far. Hamon has been largely out of the news since his victory in the Socialist primary in late January because he has produced no major campaign story for journalists, apart from whether he could do a deal with the green candidate, Yannick Jadot, and with the radical left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. For his part, Mélenchon is renowned for being a fierce critic of the media as purveyors of a neo-liberal ideology, while being adept at the personality politics that the media love: an intriguing ‘can’t live with, can’t live without’ stance on his part. He is also renowned for his use of Facebook as a campaigning tool.
That leaves the extreme-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, among the so-called serious presidential contenders. Since becoming leader of the Front national in 2011 she has enjoyed less negative coverage from mainstream media than her father: partly because her detoxification strategy, however limited in substance, has worked in distancing the party from the worst excesses of her father’s reign and partly because in 2017 she is seen as having already secured her place in the decisive second round run-off, even if no opinion poll has so far shown her to be a possible eventual winner. In the run-up to the start of the campaign, Marine Le Pen went on a media diet, so as not to overexpose herself too soon in the race. Now that the campaign is in full swing, she is back with a vengeance, solicited by much of the news media and skilfully using social media, such as Twitter, to bypass journalistic filters.
If the French media are not as powerful as one might imagine or fear and if they are not conspiring for or against particular candidates, are they at least performing one of their basic functions in informing voters of the stakes involved in this election? The answer is ‘not enough, at least not yet’. The media could do more to inform voters on issues such as the country’s economic competitiveness, unemployment, retirement age and the quality of public services such as health and education. But here too, the problem does not lie primarily with the media. It’s up to the politicians to take the lead in outlining how they intend to deal with France’s problems and take the country forward. In subjecting the candidates’ programmes to critical scrutiny, the media can then perform an important information function. Whether voters will pay attention is another matter. In an era where disdain for the mainstream media is trumpeted by the President of the United States, where fake news generated and echoed on social media challenges the foundations of traditional journalism and where trust in the media on the part of users is low, mainstream media in France face daunting challenges in interesting voters as much in the substantive issues of the campaign as in the juicy details of the Fillon scandal.
Raymond Kuhn, professor of politics, Queen Mary, University of London
Main picture: Journalists try to hang a picture of Francois Fillon which fell before a news conference in Paris, France, March 1. 2017. Fillon, former French prime minister, member of the Republicans political party and 2017 presidential election candidate of the French centre-right, made a declaration to the media at his campaign headquarters in Paris.
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