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The UK reined in Rupert Murdoch. Why can’t we stop Vincent Bolloré in France? | Julia Cagé and others

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The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted by France in 1789 to enshrine the principles of the French Revolution, noted that “the free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely”.

Today’s French constitution echoes that same defence of the “freedom, pluralism and independence of the media”.

And yet, media pluralism is at risk in France. Yes, in France.

This may surprise outsiders who tend to think of Poland or Hungary when considering threats to media freedom in Europe.

But pluralism is also an issue in France because of the expanding reach and power of the Bolloré Group. This family-owned conglomerate is already the principal shareholder of Vivendi, a global company that owns leading assets in television and movies, in advertising, PR, publishing and in digital content distribution. The Bolloré Group is now trying through Vivendi to acquire its rival the Lagardère Group, a merger that can only go through if it is approved by the European Commission.

If Vivendi succeeds – it has steadily increased its shareholding in Lagardère since 2020 – Bolloré would additionally take full control of one of the main French private radio stations, Europe 1, two of the country’s main weekly newspapers, Le Journal du Dimanche and Paris Match, and Hachette, a leader in the French and Europeanbook publishing industry. Vivendi already owns Editis, France’s second biggest publisher.

Vincent Bolloré, Vivendi’s main shareholder, is a billionaire media mogul who is accused of using his grip of the news media to try to influence French elections. Most notoriously, he gave the rightwing presidential candidate Éric Zemmour a platform of several hours a week on CNews, the 24-hour TV news channel often said by its critics to be modelled on Rupert Murdoch’s conservative US TV channel, Fox News.

In November 2021, the French senate established a commission of inquiry into media ownership concentration, which looked into the rising power of Bolloré. While Bolloré’s critics claim that he poses a real danger to press freedom, the inquiry came up with no solutions.

Earlier this month, the parliamentarian Louis Boyard filed a complaint against Cyril Hanouna, the star host of Bolloré’s channel C8, for insulting him on air (Hanouna called the MP “a piece of shit” and “a buffoon”). Hanouna’s show goes on, as if nothing happened.

With the failure of yet another French bill aimed at curbing media concentration, any hope appears to be in the hands of the EU. Margrethe Vestager, the competition commissioner, will deliver her decision on whether to approve the merger or conduct a full inquiry on 30 November.

Vestager has said that the buyout will be examined from a competition standpoint; in other words, she will not take account of how Bolloré’s media gave oxygen to far-right ideas. Nor will she allow for accusations against Bolloré of involvement in censoring content (most notably regarding his business activities in Africa), influencing what appears on the cover of magazines and firing journalists who have tried to stand up to him. Questioned by the senate committee, Bolloré, who officially handed over control of Vivendi to his sons earlier this year, but retains his shareholding and an advisory role, denied ever meddling in editorial choices.

Laurence Ferrari and Sonia Mabrouk of CNews host a debate between the Les Républicains candidates for the French presidential election. Photograph: Julien de Rosa/AFP/Getty Images

The decision will be taken from the competition standpoint. So be it. And yet, information is a public good, and thus cannot be reduced to market share alone. Media pluralism is essential to safeguard the quality of information available and ensure that audiences are exposed to a variety of competing voices and perspectives. The proposed merger would put one man in control of news reaching a third of the French adult population. If the deal is cleared, French citizens will get a less diverse and informative news diet.

Competition authorities have a regulatory duty to protect consumers from such a significant loss of pluralism. This was made clear in the 2018 decision of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on the attempted acquisition by the Murdoch-controlled 21st Century Fox of the broadcaster Sky. Murdoch, who already in the UK market controlled the Times and the Sun, wanted to gain full control over Sky. The proposed deal was OK in a narrow anti-trust sense because the companies were active on different platforms.

But in its decision the CMA said it would not be in the public interest, noting that “the consideration of media plurality goes to the heart of our democratic process and as such is given particular protection in legislation”.

The CMA used the UK media regulator Ofcom’s definition of media plurality, pointing out the need to prevent “any one media owner, or voice, having too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda”. Given that Bolloré has in the past hardly concealed his desire for editorial influence at the media outlets owned by his group, we might have legitimate concerns that this acquisition could reduce the diversity of viewpoints available to the French public.

The European Commission could argue that pluralism is the responsibility of national regulatory authorities, not of Brussels. But the relevant French law, which dates back to 1986, is no longer adequate to guarantee media pluralism in the digital age.

Perhaps even more important, Arcom, the French media regulator, has repeatedly fallen short as a regulator and as a guarantor of pluralism. We need the European commissioner for competition to intervene on behalf of pluralism in France.

Even if we leave aside issues linked to the publishing industry, the acquisition raises competition issues for the news media. Via the Prisma Group, which owns a range of popular weekly and monthly magazines, Vivendi already reaches more than 16 million adults in France on a regular basis – nearly 30% of the adult population.

If it were also to take control of Le Journal du Dimanche (with a readership of 1.2 million) and Paris Match (with 2.6 million), it would far exceed the 10% threshold introduced by new European regulations, and even be well above what an old-style market share approach would allow.

Beyond the media, Vivendi owns assets in communications, advertising and publishing, with increasing synergies between its different activities. It owns a booking agency as well as a show and concert promoter for music artists and standup comedians. So we see Vivendi-promoted artists on the front pages of Vivendi-owned magazines. Journalists such as Laurence Ferrari appear across the different media companies owned by the group: Ferrari presents a show on CNews TV, another on the radio channel Europe 1 and, since September, is editor-in-chief of Paris Match’s political service.

Regulating media concentration and ensuring media pluralism raises challenges in the digital age. But we can save pluralism. Vivendi can be blocked just as the UK blocked the Sky and 21st Century Fox merger in 2018.

If media pluralism is at risk now in France, it could soon be in jeopardy in other countries. We have no choice but to rethink competition entirely, in particular in an era when disinformation is undermining democracy. We can no longer simply think of fair competition as an issue of market share but also need to take into account attention share. What is at stake today is not just the media in France but our collective ability to redefine media pluralism and market power in a new geopolitical context, where democracy itself is more fragile than ever.

  • Julia Cagé is associate professor of economics at Sciences Po Paris and research fellow of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). She co-wrote this article with Andrea Prat, Columbia University and CEPR; Charles Angelucci, Massachussetts Institute of Technology; Ruben Durante, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, and Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies; Nicola Fontana, University of Dublin; Gregory Martin, Stanford University; Nicola Mastrorocco, University of Bologna; Eli Noam, Columbia Institute for Tele-Information and Columbia University Business School; Maria Petrova, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, and ICREA; Thomas Philippon, New York University, Stern School of Business; Anya Schiffrin, Columbia University; Andrey Simonov, Columbia Business School; Camille Urvoy, University of Mannheim; Tommaso Valletti, Imperial College London

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