PARIS — Nicolas Sarkozy was swept into France’s highest elected office promising to thoroughly modernize the country, and he has wasted no time in showing his canny appreciation of the power of the media — and especially the effect a successful European politician can have on it.
Two close allies of the new French head of state are set to move into top slots at the nation’s most-watched network, TF1. Taking over as TF1 CEO is Nonce Paolini, who steps down as senior vice president of the Bouygues Group, a giant in media and construction, one of Europe’s leading conglomerates and TF1’s biggest shareholder; chairman Martin Bouygues is godfather to Sarkozy’s son. The second TF1 newcomer, Laurent Solly, was deputy director of Sarkozy’s campaign; he will step in as the network’s deputy director general.
To nobody’s surprise, the two appointments have infuriated France’s political opposition.
Outgoing president Jacques Chirac won begrudging respect from his many detractors in the media for refusing to retaliate when baited by detractors.
Sarkozy, however, as a high-profile cabinet minister, has often blasted members of both French and foreign media with both barrels; tales of his singling out of journalists for attack and putting pressure on their employers are plentiful.
This would be less of a cause for general concern in France if so many of Sarkozy’s most prominent supporters were not owners of major TV networks, radio stations, magazines and newspapers.
Last year, Sarkozy successfully demanded the firing of the editor of leading weekly tabloid Paris Match for publishing photos of his wife Cecilia’s alleged lover, despite Sarkozy’s marital problems being one of France’s worst-kept secrets. Paris Match’s owner, Arnaud Lagardere, is head of Hachette Filipacchi Medias, the world’s biggest magazine publisher and owner of a leading French radio station and two cable TV networks.
Lagardere on more than one occasion has referred to the new president as his brother; despite a threatened mass walkout by Paris Match staff, its editor was soon seeking work elsewhere.
People up and down the French media food chain have cause for alarm. The heads of France 3, part of the state-run public service network, may well be anticipating a few pinkslips after Sarkozy objected in no uncertain terms more than once to their coverage of his campaign.
Clearly, this is a president elect sensitive to his portrayal in the media. When Sarkozy planned to sun himself for three days aboard the $3.5 million yacht of friend Vincent Bollore, a leading industrialist and corporate raider who is one of Bouygues’ biggest shareholders, Sarkozy’s staffers dropped hints their boss was off to recharge his batteries at a monastery.
But in a sign that French society may have changed — at least among the 53% that voted for Sarkozy — the subterfuge was largely a nonissue with most French, despite the best efforts of his enemies to brand it as scandalous.
With legislative elections later in June, however, the president may yet want to exercise caution in a country still unaccustomed to seeing its leaders flaunt their friendships with tycoons of any stripe.