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Conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré is tightening control over the French media

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When journalists from the French weekly Journal du Dimanche huddled at an editorial meeting to discuss Hervé Gattegno’s sudden layoff that week, the atmosphere was funeral.

Many in attendance feared that Vincent Bolloré, the conservative billionaire who controls media group Vivendi, was making his mark on the newspaper before his upcoming takeover of parent company Lagardère was completed.

They had cause for concern: Bolloré, who earned a large part of his fortune in logistics and transport in Africa and through clever company robberies, has revised his media acquisitions in terms of personnel, style and content. The tycoon, who comes from a family of traditional Catholics from Brittany, long considered the French media to be too left-wing and tried to counterbalance, according to those familiar with his mindset.

At Vivendi, he tamed the disrespectful satire shows of the pay TV operator Canal Plus and then fired its CEO. He took advantage of a month-long strike on news channel I-Télé to cut a third of the newsroom and pave the way for the company to be renamed CNews, a news and opinion channel inspired by US right-wing champion Fox News.

Changes to the Lagardère Europa-1 radio station over the summer resulted in a strike and a mass exit of journalists. As Lagardère’s largest shareholder, Vivendi jumped into CNews Stars to replace several seasoned hosts in the once mainstream branch. He also ordered that CNews broadcast directly on the airwaves of the station on the weekend morning.

JDD is one of the most powerful instruments of political power in France, so it is no coincidence that these changes take place right before the elections

“We share an office building with Europe 1 so we all know what happened there,” said a JDD reporter who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation. “People are very concerned that the editorial line will change, just like other media outlets that have become owned by Bolloré.”

As France prepares for next April’s presidential elections, the changes at Lagardère have gained momentum.

The company’s media – including the society magazine Paris Match as well as JDD and Europe 1 – are closely followed by the business and political elite and are considered to be formative for the formation of public opinion.

Emmanuel Macron appeared eight times on the cover of Paris Match during his lengthy run for the presidency in 2017, and his ministers frequently grace the cover of JDD on Sundays to make announcements that set the political agenda for the week.

“The JDD is one of the most powerful instruments of political power in France, so it is no coincidence that these changes are happening just before the elections,” said a former employee.

The newspaper has a circulation of around 150,000 but is above its weight in terms of influence, while Paris Match sells around 550,000 copies a week.

Bolloré’s growing influence in the media could influence the course of the next elections by addressing issues of culture and identity rather than issues such as the economy or the environment, analysts say. CNews has already helped bring one of its star presenters, far-right polemicist Eric Zemmour, into politics.

Presidents and potential presidential candidates all graced the cover of influential society magazine Paris Match, one of the titles in the Lagardère stable

Zemmour advocates an anti-immigration agenda and laments what he sees as France’s decline.

Bolloré, who traditionally supports center-right affairs and is close to former President Nicolas Sarkozy, has not publicly endorsed Zemmour but is said to value many of his ideas, including those on crime, according to people familiar with his mindset.

“Bolloré went step by step to give the radical right a place to express themselves and they now have access to mainstream media,” said Virginie Martin, professor of political science at Kedge Business School in Paris . “They never had that before and it held a glass ceiling over right-wing extremist politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marine Le Pen.”

If regulators approve Vivendi’s offer for Lagardère, Bolloré will effectively control France’s largest pay-TV operator, Canal Plus; his largest book publisher Hachette; the widely watched 24-hour news channel CNews; Europe 1 radio; JDD; Paris game; and a dozen other magazines.

Academics and historians have expressed concern about the concentration of media ownership in France, not only in the hands of Bolloré but also in the hands of other wealthy owners. The Bouygues family owns the largest commercial broadcaster TF1 and is seeking approval to purchase its smaller competitor M6. Telecom tycoons Patrick Drahi and Xavier Niel and LVMH boss Bernard Arnault also have important branches.

“Bolloré is not the first wealthy person to invest in the press, but what makes him stand out is how he burdens the editorial line of his media,” said media historian Christian Delporte. “There is a political project behind all of this.”

The departure of Gattegno, who was both the publisher of JDD and Paris Match, was officially decided this week by Lagardère CEO Arnaud Lagardère and news chief Constance Benqué. But several people within the group said Bolloré pushed for the change.

Vivendi and Lagardère declined to comment.

Gattegno was replaced by Patrick Mahé at Paris Match and Jerome Bellay at JDD, both of whom were named general managers. Two deputies were promoted to editor-in-chief.

People who know Gattegno describe him as a controversial but brilliant editor known for defending Sarkozy on his legal troubles and taking a tough line against the normalization of the far right in France.

Reasons for his departure were not given publicly. However, some speculated that factors included his criticism in an editorial by Zemmour as a “prophet of doom” and the decision to put the 63-year-old married father of three on the cover of Paris Match last month, who turned 28 Year olds hugged campaign advisor Sarah Knafo.

“Bolloré wanted his head,” said a company director. “And he got it.”

Additional reporting by Domitille Alain

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