Comment is free, but French comment sections are sacred


Reading user comments on news websites – in France as elsewhere – often involves skimming through bad-mannered quarrels. For some, this can be off-putting.
For journalists, the experience can be even more unpleasant.

“Out of weariness, despondency or simply to avoid becoming severely depressed, most of my colleagues now ignore them,” one columnist wrote at, the online version of daily newspaper Libération.

But whether journalists and readers like reading them, user comments are there to stay.

“The question is not whether or not we find them useful,” said Antoine Daccord, the community manager at, the most popular news website in France. “We try to adapt to reader practices. People have come to like commenting and debating news online. It allows them to share their views with many people who they would never meet,” he noted.

Third voice

Some French websites have a resolutely positive attitude toward readers’ reactions.

“Comments are often considered as pollution by news websites. For us it’s the opposite. We think that they are important both for building trust with readers and to enrich our journalistic work,” said Laurent Mauriac, one of the founders of Rue89, an online-only news provider.

Rue89 was launched in 2007 by a group of print journalists who also wrote blogs. So they were used to interacting with readers via the comments section, Mauriac said.

The website’s motto is “information with three voices,” ie. journalists, experts and readers. When reporters spot a useful testimony, they sometimes use the information for an article or ask their author to write a full article himself. The website abounds with articles written by users, called “riverains,” or residents.


Suspicious French

For Mauriac and others, listening to readers’ voice and building trust are keys to the future of the press in France.
The French are suspicious of journalists. A recent poll showed that 66 percent of the population thinks that media professionals are not independent. Bernard Poulet, the author of a book on the future of the press, also believes that the French media previously made the mistake of ignoring ordinary people’s voices in their news coverage.

At Rue89, journalists spend 10 to 20 percent of their time reading comments, Mauriac said. Sometimes they reply to individual comments. Prolific commentators are invited to write full articles, and sometimes to visit the newsroom. This makes readers feel involved. And it makes journalists seem more accountable.

Old media too

Online-only sites are not the only news outlets making efforts to interact with readers., the online version of the oldest French daily, Le Figaro, hired Antoine Daccord to oversee comment management (among other things, like managing the paper’s Fan Page on Facebook).

“Journalists are encouraged but not forced to read comments,” Daccord said. “Le Figaro has 45 blogs, 30 of which are written by journalists from the print daily. So many journalists are used to going online and reading reactions,” he added.

Le Figaro journalists summarise comments for each article and include them in a special section visible on the homepage. In March, 2009, the website published a long text by a passenger who witnessed a dispute on an Air France flight.image


At Le Figaro, a team of moderators reads through every comment (15,000 a day, according to website La Voix du Dodo). Insults, racism and other violations of the terms of use are deleted. Comments are published only after screening. This takes between 1 and 30 minutes, Daccord said.

At Rue 89, on the other hand, comments are published before moderation. The aim is to make debates livelier, the website says. French law grants a status to “online press publishers,” allowing them to moderate comments afterwards.

Online publishers lobbied the government to obtain this right.

Different methods

Readers’ debates have become an extension to almost every story. But the way comments are managed varies from one site to another.

Rue89 selects what it sees as the most interesting contributions, highlights them and places them above other comments. On, the web version of daily Le Monde, a box on the homepage displays an isolated comment, with a link to the article underneath. As opposed to most other websites, the website allows only subscribers to react.

User comments are still a relatively new phenomenon; most French news sites are still trying to make the most out of reader interaction.

Flickr image from users merezha, duncan, premasagar