A Fox-Style News Network Rides a Wave of Discontent in France

PARIS — It’s the news network that claims it tells viewers what the “woke” mainstream media won’t. It says it fights for endangered freedom of expression, even as it has been fined by the government’s broadcast regulator for inciting racial hatred.

It is CNews — which in four short years has become France’s No. 1 news network by giving a bullhorn to far-right politicians, opponents of fighting climate change and a high-profile proponent of the discredited idea of using the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure for Covid-19.

The model is Fox News — including the clashing talking heads and incendiary cultural topics — and it has worked. Owned by the French billionaire Vincent Bolloré, former chairman of the media group Vivendi, CNews increasingly helps shape the national debate, especially on hot-button issues like crime, immigration and Islam’s place in France that are expected to sway next year’s presidential election.

The network’s extraordinary influence and contentious role in France were made even clearer this week, when its most popular host was forced off the air because he is regarded as a likely candidate for president — and one with a real chance of upending the race.

In a country where trust in the news media is very low, CNews emerged at a time of particular discontent — in the aftermath of the Yellow Vest protests of 2018, which, like the election of Donald J. Trump in the United States, prompted much soul-searching among journalists. Poorly understood by traditional news organizations, the protests reinforced the impression of an out-of-touch Paris-centered media and opened a new era of sometimes violent confrontation between journalists and people on the streets where they were reporting.

“People were sick and tired of the politically correct, and, in France, for the past 30, 40 years, news was in the hands of newspapers, television and dailies that all said the same thing,” said Serge Nedjar, the head of CNews, explaining how his channel positioned itself in a nation with four all-news networks.

Unlike its competitors, CNews focused on “analyses and debates” of topics that Mr. Nedjar said mattered most to the French but had been ignored or insufficiently covered by the media: “crime, lack of safety, immigration.”

He added: “We created this network by telling ourselves we talk about everything, including topics that are explosive.”

Mr. Nedjar said that he was unfamiliar with Fox News when CNews was created and waved away comparisons. “There’s the word ‘news,’ and all the better if it works like Fox News,” he said, referring to his network’s name. “Fox News works really well over there, I hear.”

But critics say the problem is not with CNews’s choice of topics, but the way it treats them. They say its emphasis on opinion, often backed up with little reporting or fact-checking, propagates popular biases and deepens cleavages in a polarized society.

“It’s a way to take the worst of public opinion — what you hear at the local bar, that you can’t say anything anymore, that you’re not allowed to talk about it,” said Alexis Lévrier, a media historian at the University of Reims.

During the week of the rentrée after the summer vacation, CNews hit upon a familiar formula of stoking racial and religious divisions in response to a plan by President Emmanuel Macron to revitalize Marseille, France’s second-biggest city and, after decades of immigration from Africa, one of its most diverse.

On CNews, one hostess and her guests, including a spokesman for the far-right National Rally, repeatedly predicted the plan’s failure. The guests described Marseille as a lawless place of “enclaves” that no longer felt like France because the residents were people of “non-European” background.

Pascal Praud, one of CNews’s top hosts, teased Mr. Macron for sprinkling his speech in Marseille with 10-cent words like “thaumaturge” and “palimpsest.”

Mr. Nedjar said CNews favored personalities who “are normal people” and “not pretentious.”

He added: “They don’t think they’re Victor Hugo.”

The network’s top personality, Éric Zemmour, has become a national figure, and the subject of two rulings from the government regulator. He does not hesitate to push the white nationalist conspiracy theory of the supposed great replacement of the established population by newer arrivals from Africa. It has inspired white supremacist killings from Texas to New Zealand and has been avoided even by far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally.

“You have a population that is French, white, Christian, of Greco-Roman culture” that is being replaced by a “population that is from the Maghreb, African and mostly Muslim,” Mr. Zemmour said two weeks ago.

In two rulings on past comments by Mr. Zemmour, the government’s broadcast regulator put CNews on formal notice, and in March fined it 200,000 euros, about $236,000, for speech inciting racial hatred — the first time a news network has faced such a sanction. Since June, the regulator — which is entrusted with ensuring political balance in broadcasting — has also twice warned CNews for failing to provide a diversity of views or for giving an unfair share of airtime to the far-right National Rally.

Mr. Nedjar said last week that Mr. Zemmour was exercising his freedom of expression and that the network was contesting the rulings. But it was Mr. Zemmour’s flirtation with running for president that forced the network to take action on Monday. After the regulator ordered a limit on Mr. Zemmour’s broadcast time because he could be considered a political actor, CNews announced that he would stop appearing on his regular program.

The origins of CNews began in 2015, when Mr. Bolloré took control of the broadcast network Canal Plus, including its struggling left-leaning news channel, i-Télé. Two years later, the channel was reborn as CNews.

In 2018, the Yellow Vest movement — led by French on the geographic and economic periphery — caught the media and political establishment by surprise. Journalists came to be seen as adversaries and became the target of protesters, said Vincent Giret, who oversees news at Radio France, the public broadcaster.

“There’s a part of France today that doesn’t feel represented when listening to or watching the media,” Mr. Giret said.

In a recent news conference, Mr. Giret said that Radio France would emphasize journalism rooted in facts, neutrality and reporting, to avoid harming the “democratic debate.”

“We avoid — because we thought about it — presenting ourselves as the anti-CNews,” he said.

But CNews’s success, media experts say, has influenced its rivals, including Radio France, which just started an opinion segment on its France Inter station.

“Our direct competitors, who spent their time saying they wouldn’t do any CNews, all they’re doing is CNews,” Mr. Nedjar said.

Over the summer, CNews’s power appeared to grow when its billionaire owner, Mr. Bolloré, took control of a radio station, Europe 1. Some hosts from CNews are now doing double duty on Europe 1.

Patrick Cohen, a veteran journalist, was one of many to leave Europe 1, fearing it would turn into a radio version of CNews.

“The raison d’être of these channels is not to seek the truth, but to seek controversy,” Mr. Cohen said. “Their role is to create divisions.”

But Mr. Cohen said he believed that CNews’s influence on politics and next year’s election would be limited. Though it was now the top-rated news channel, its share of the audience was lower than that of the traditional networks, he said.

Others say that, like Fox News two decades earlier, CNews filled a political void in the media landscape and has nudged France’s conservatives further to the right.

“It’s due in part to the Fox News effect, and it’s in the process of completely changing the French political landscape,” said Julia Cagé, an economist at Sciences Po specializing in the media.

At the beginning of Mr. Macron’s five-year presidency, his aides monitored BFM, a CNN-like news channel that has slipped behind CNews in the ratings, said Mr. Lévrier, the media historian. Now, he said, they were glued to CNews.

Two years ago, some politicians — on the left, like the Greens, or in Mr. Macron’s centrist party — vowed never to appear on CNews. Many have since quietly gravitated to its studios.

Though cautious about stating his network’s power, Mr. Nedjar said that on hot-button issues, “CNews has slightly, modestly, succeeded in shifting the lines.” He said he believed that the network was making some government officials nervous because they thought it could help propel a candidate like Ms. Le Pen to power.

“I think they’re worried about the influence of CNews, which I tell you is not huge,” Mr. Nedjar said. “But they’re worried about the influence of CNews a few months before the election.”

Léontine Gallois contributed reporting.

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