New French premier taps a culture chief

PARIS — French Premier Lionel Jospin pulled off a surprise move on Wednesday by naming Catherine Trautmann culture and communications minister, in the process overlooking the strongly tipped former communications minister Catherine Tasca.

The path is now clear for the Socialist government to take its turn at legislating France’s audiovisual industry, with all the signs pointing to a major fight developing over the power some groups hold over Gallic TV networks.

Trautmann, 46, is the mayor of Strasbourg, but her government experience is limited to a short spell as a junior minister under Socialist Premier Michel Rocard in 1988. She held that job for a matter of months before resigning after losing her parliamentary seat in 1989.

Tasca out

Trautmann’s appointment may be a blessing for U.S. lobbyists and industry reps. Prior to Wednesday’s ministerial announcement, hot favorite for the culture job was Tasca.

As communications minister between 1988 and 1991, Tasca introduced the TV quota system in France which forced networks to program 60% European programming and 40% French. She also made the quotas apply to primetime, in the process earning the reputation for being anti-American.

Tasca’s run for the culture post may have been halted because she is currently employed by pay TV giant Canal Plus as president of the board of Canal Horizons — the paybox’s African subsid.

Most controversial among the new government’s audiovisual proposals is a change in the ownership laws concerning national television networks. Under the conservatives, the maximum stake any one company could hold in a network was pushed up from 25% to 49% — largely because of fierce lobbying from the Bouygues construction group, which effectively runs private web TF1 with a 49% stake.

The Socialists appear to want to bring the limit back down to 25%, which will mean the hunt will be on for new shareholders.In addition, the Socialists are going to turn their attention to the question of major services companies which have significant shares in television networks and who also bid for public contracts.

Firm contacts

France’s main private networks are all closely linked to such giant groups. Bouygues is a major bidder for public construction contracts. Waterworks giants Generale des Eaux and Lyonnaise des Eaux have direct or indirect stakes in pay television company Canal Plus and private web M6, respectively.

There have been suggestions recently that the relationship between backing a major media outlet and trying to obtain government works contracts may not be all above board. The new government is tipped to act to clear up the situation.

One dossier which is likely to be handled in favor of Canal Plus covers the three-year exclusive deal inked between pubcasters France 2 and France 3 with digital platform Television Par Satellite (TPS) — in which both pubcasters are shareholders.

Jospin’s team has made it clear that they do not agree with the idea of the pubcasters being on one digital platform and not Canal Plus’ rival Canal Satellite offering. Current legislation held over from the outgoing conservative government looks likely to be turned over on this point.

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