Vincent Bolloré key to France’s move to the right

They call him the Boa Constrictor. He sets his sight upon his prey — a TV station, a magazine, a publishing house, a West African port — squeezes the life out of it, and then swallows it whole. He is Vincent Bolloré: a billionaire logistics magnate; a maritime monopolist; a corporate raider par excellence; a scion with his eye on the next inhabitant of the Elysée; Rupert Murdoch in a Breton stripe. 

He is also, at least in part, the answer to the question people all over the world are asking as French voters flirt with the prospect of electing their first far-right government of modern times: what on earth has happened to France? 

The extreme right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen, long a looming threat in French politics, finished first in the European elections on June 9, a defeat that led President Emmanuel Macron to dissolve the lower house and call for a fresh legislative vote. Last Sunday, the National Rally handily won the first round of the snap poll, bringing in 33% of votes to the left coalition’s 28%, with Macron’s bloc in a derisory third place on 21%. 

This Sunday, a second round will determine whether a party that has fielded a hellish cavalcade of racists, misogynists, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and Nazi memorabilia enthusiasts, that more closely resembles the Garden of Earthly Delights than a serious political concern, will be handed an absolute majority and the keys to the prime ministerial residence in Paris. In eastern France, a man placed under “reinforced legal guardianship” in 2023, who is thus technically ineligible to run for office, qualified for the second round for the National Rally last week. To the west, a woman who served 10 months in prison for holding a town hall employee hostage at gunpoint will also be on the ballot this Sunday

How did a country that has for decades just about managed to hold off the advances of the far right end up here? It has a lot to do with Bolloré’s two-decade campaign to construct a vast media empire and shift the Overton window of an entire nation far — very far — to the right. 

In France, if you can watch it, read it or listen to it, there’s a high probability that Bolloré has a controlling stake in it. If you happen to be at a train station or the airport, this will apply to the bookshop you are standing in (Relay: Bolloré) as you leaf through the latest non-fiction release from Hachette (Bolloré), an edition of the influential politics weekly Journal du Dimanche (Bolloré), the gossipy Paris Match (Bolloré), the French National Geographic (Bolloré) or simply the TV guide (Bolloré), which will inform you of what’s up next on Canal+ (Bolloré), C8 (Bolloré) or Cstar (oui, oui, c’est Bolloré). 

But it is CNews, otherwise known as the French Fox News, that has had the most corrosive effect on public life. Economist Julia Cagé has described its editorial line as “the triple I”: “immigration, identity, Islam”. The channel is responsible for launching the career of former presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, a wannabe Trump who in 2022 ran to the right of the National Rally, a political terrain you should need binoculars to identify from the centre but which looms all too large in modern France. In the television personalities Cyril Hanouna and Pascal Praud, we have our Tucker Carlson and our Sean Hannity — Praud recently blamed Paris’ bedbug infestation on immigrants, while an analysis of one of Hanouna’s shows from 2016 by the Association of LGBTI Journalists identified 42 homophobic jokes within the space of a single month. 

Unlike Murdoch, Bolloré did not make his start in newspapers. But he also inherited a flagging business from his father and turned it around to the tune of billions. Bolloré got his hands on his family’s eponymous logistics group in 1981. Today, he is France’s 11th richest man, having got there by pursuing deals in African port cities for his freight operations. It was not until 2000 that he turned his attention to the media and advertising, and in 2022, facing competition from China, he sold off his African logistics operation to spend more time with his shock jocks. (The fact that he pleaded guilty and was fined over corruption charges linked to his activities in Africa in 2021 can’t have helped.)  

There is a Bolloré method. First, he takes a stake in a media property. The journalists then go on mass strike over his planned changes — in the case of the respected Journal du Dimanche, this was the parachuting in of an editor from a far-right magazine who had been convicted of racial hate speech for a story comparing left-wing MP Danièle Obono to a slave (the editor was acquitted on appeal). Once the journalists fail to have their demands met, they leave en masse, allowing the owner to install a fresh staff ready to toe the new editorial line. After this is achieved, the Boa Constrictor moves on to his next prey. The French language never knew a proper noun it didn’t want to turn into a verb and so this process, which has seen millions of people dragged towards the most toxic, racist ideas to be found in France — from nostalgia for colonial Algeria to Vichy apologism — is known as “bollorisation”. 

The other side of bollorisation is the billionaire’s relentless pursuit of any investigative reporter who has the temerity to look into his business affairs. Reporters Without Borders has warned that his method of hitting journalists with successive gag orders and defamation complaints while buying up rivals represents an “unprecedented threat to democracy”. No matter that he invariably loses, the goal is to tie journalists up in expensive court proceedings as an intimidation tactic. In other words, cher Vincent, I really hope you’re not reading this. 

Hamstrung regulators appear powerless against Bolloré’s dystopian world-building efforts. Cagé points out that French competition law prevents anyone buying print publications of political or general interest if it would leave them in control of 30% of papers in circulation. As he owns a controlling stake in two major print groups, this could exclude Bolloré — or at least it would if the law didn’t apply specifically to dailies. The Journal du Dimanche may set the agenda for French politics, but it only comes out on a Sunday. And as his largely fruitless pursuit of independent journalism in the courts shows, Bolloré does not trifle over legal costs. In the days leading up to the first round of voting in the legislative elections, the communications authority served formal notice on the Bolloré-controlled radio station Europe 1 for a lack of “moderation” and “honesty” and an over-representation of far-right views during an election program hosted by none other than Cyril Hanouna. The host was simply swapped out for another CNews transplant.

What is the net effect of all of this on France? Australians, Americans and Brits know it all too well. Millions of television viewers and radio listeners are absorbing evermore extreme ideas about their neighbours. The writer Didier Eribon describes how his mother, an elderly, working-class woman from the eastern town of Reims, was radicalised by a bollorised daytime television landscape. Lost in the Paris suburbs, she asks people waiting on a train platform to send her in the right direction. What strikes her, Eribon writes, is how kind these strangers were, “given that they were all Black”. Why wouldn’t they be nice to you? he asks his mother. “Well,” she says “given all you see on television…”

Aided by Bolloré’s empire, the National Rally’s thumping victories have unleashed a tsunami of racism against everyday people in France. Immediately after the European election results, the public channel France 2 aired a segment in which Divine, a naturalised citizen and care worker, describes being greeted with monkey noises and calls to “go back where she came from” by her neighbours, who have placed far-right posters on the wall that faces her home. Divine’s antagonist, a man in a t-shirt that says “proud to be French”, tells the reporter he’s fed up with people who do not respect French customs. When asked who he is talking about, he responds: “I see on television how it is: all those Mustafas, whatever you want to call them…” 

As France tears itself apart over the “three I’s”, will Bolloré get what he wants: the National Rally leading the National Assembly and Marine Le Pen in the Elysée? With growing disillusion with mainstream politics and without serious media competition or journalism protection laws, it seems ever-more likely that the Boa Constrictor will gulp us all down. 

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