State aid and 10 Commandments to revive French press


From October, 2008, to January, 2009, French journalists, publishers, experts and members of parliament got together to discuss the future of the press in France. The forum, called the Etats généraux de la presse écrite, was held on the initiative of President Nicolas Sarkozy. Its stated goals were to find ways to solve the sector’s financial problems and to keep the press “alive, pluralistic and independent.”


Six months after the Etats généraux released its green book of recommendations, several actions are being implemented, notably in terms of state aid and drafting a code of practice for French journalists.

Government action

In January, Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to help the sector – to the tune of €600m over three years. “Half of the measures [promised by Sarkozy] have already been implemented,” Culture Minister Christine Albanel said on 17 July, 2008 (Christine Albanel has since been replaced by Frédéric Mitterrand in a cabinet reshuffle on 23 June).

The state measures are wide-reaching. A planned rise in postal rates has been delayed by one year, the budget for government messages in the press increases from €20m to €36m, and €70m has been set aside to fund home delivery of newspapers (up from a previous €8m). The government is also looking at ways to help press distributors financially (notably by reducing social taxes by 30 percent).

Free subscription for youth

In a bid to raise the interest in newspapers among the youth, those aged 18 to 24 will be offered a free weekly subscription to a newspaper of their choice as from September. The newspapers are to be given by the publishers themselves; delivery will be paid for by the government. Press unions expect 200,000 out of a potential 750,000 people will take the grant during the scheme’s test phase.

La poste

But the money is not all for the print media, whose future is increasingly questioned. “If the press does not take the internet turn it will have nothing to offer the generations born in the digital age”, Sarkozy said in January. In April, the French parliament passed a bill which grants online news publishers the same status as those in the print media. A fund with €20m has also been set up to help the press move into the Internet era.

In addition to the €600m budget, the government has also pledged to help press publishers cut printing costs. This measure is likely to be more difficult to implement, as pointed out by Le Figaro, because it will mean laying off workers.

Code of practice

State aid was not the only outcome of the Etats généraux. The forum also gave birth to an independent initiative aiming to create a new code of practice for journalists. A group of 11 journalists and experts was set up in May to draft the text. It is led by Bruno Frappat, who chaired one of the working groups at the forum. Frappat was until recently chairman of the board of directors of Bayard Presse, a Catholic press group.

The text is to be “simple, clear, practical, bright and balanced. It has to be as short as possible, like the 10 Commandments,” Frappat told newspaper Le Monde in a recent interview. The issues covered include: “The relationship with money, the difference between information and communication, the relationship with advertising, the respect of privacy, and the dangers of staging facts. To say that journalists are neither policemen nor judges. And the question of checking information which, under pressure from the web and immediateness, becomes a real issue.”

As opposed to existing codes of practice, the new code, if adopted, will feature in the profession’s collective labour agreement, and therefore have more clout. To come into effect, it will need the backing of unions and publishers.

The working group is made up of journalists, publishers and other experts, including a public television ombudsman and a lawyer.

Asked whether this group is supported by unions and journalists, Frappat answers, “We have absolutely no legitimacy and that’s all to the better!,” perhaps implying that it is easier for the group to work as it is not hindered by accountability to other stakeholders. Frappat also ensures that the group is independent from government, despite Sarkozy backing the initiative.