News? Oui can do it, too sez Prez Chirac

Channel to promote French culture, bolster political influence

PARIS — The French are forging ahead with plans for “CNN a la Francaise,” a round-the-clock Gallic news channel to counter the global inroads made by Anglo-American services.

What’s unclear is just what editorial stance it will take and how much money will be thrown at it, although the government has suggested the channel will need a budget of €100 million ($159 million).

The idea of a state-backed international French-language news channel first came up in 1989 and re-emerged during President Jacques Chirac’s 2002 re-election campaign.

But the diplomatic clash with the U.S. this winter over the Iraq war fast-tracked the project, now expected to launch in 2004.

Chirac believes the news channel will promote the spread of French culture and language and, most importantly, bolster France’s political influence on the international stage.

“It’s about having a diplomatic tool,” asserts an official close to the project. “When there’s a war in Iraq if you don’t have CNN showing people’s joy as the statue of Saddam Hussein is being taken down, you don’t have the same support.”

“Big American media carry uncritically the most extreme views of their government. France fights in a position of inferiority,” explained Le Figaro recently.

Leading broadcaster TF1, paybox Canal Plus and pubcaster France Television have all submitted proposals for the channel that are being evaluated by MP and Mayor of Cannes Bernard Brochand on behalf of the government. Brochand has until Sept. 22 to hand in a report on the proposals to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

A parliamentary commission is also looking independently at how the private broadcasters and France’s existing overseas broadcasting services could be put to best use.

The contenders have endorsed the government’s idea of a free-to-air global service in French that would spin off versions in English, Arabic and Spanish.

Vivendi Universal’s pay TV unit Canal Plus says it could produce a French-language feed for $39 million per year, and add the three extra languages for a further $50 million.

TF1 declined to name a price tag before possible partnerships have been explored.

Whether or not the channel turns a profit is not an issue. “It’s not possible to make money,” the official maintains.

So why would private broadcasters with shareholders want to get involved? To boost their image and to make fuller use of resources such as overseas bureaus that they are already paying for anyway.

For instance, Canal Plus would use the editorial services of its 24-hour news channel i-tele, of Media Overseas, another Viv U subsid which operates TV and radio platforms in 47 mostly francophone countries, and the development team of thematic channel subsid Multithematiques, which has a network of distribution platforms it already does business with.

“We think we have a lot to offer right from the start,” a company exec says.

The channel’s core target group is expected to be in France’s former colonies in the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa where satellite-beamed French channels are already popular, often thanks to pirated smart cards.

In Algeria, the second biggest French-speaking country in the world and potentially the channel’s largest market, many newspapers carry the schedules of the main French nets rather than that of the local state broadcaster.

CNN, Fox News and the BBC have limited potential because English is little understood. The channel’s main rival will likely be Al-Jazeera, which already has a large following in North Africa.

Whether the channel will broadcast the views of opponents of governments openly supported by Paris remains to be seen.

Both Vivendi and TF1’s parent construction and telecommunications group Bouygues have business interests in Africa thanks to contracts usually granted by local governments.

“We will have to be independent because we will need independence to get viewers. Without audiences the project is pointless, and we have said so to the government,” says Canal Plus director of marketing Rodolphe Belmer.

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