The French president found himself under fire following an attempted police raid on the offices of the investigative news site Mediapart. While many around the world were shocked, Mediapart’s journalists themselves were not entirely surprised.
As you walk into Mediapart’s Parisian office on 8 Passage Brulon, it’s hard to imagine that the president of France would ever consider the small group of young people scattered around the cozy space as a threat.
Yet on February 4, three policemen and two prosecutors showed up early Monday morning and demanded to conduct a search of the premises. Edwy Plenel, the editor in chief and co-founder of the fledgling independent news organization, declined the search—the officers did not have a search warrant. “It’s a foolish, amazing story,” Plenel later told ProMarket about the attempted raid. “There were two prosecutors, three cops. One of them was the number two in the criminal brigade. That’s the biggest criminal unit in the French police.”
The background to the failed raid on Mediapart’s newsroom was the site’s string of scoops regarding what has become known in France as the Benalla Affair—a scandal that revolves around French president Emmanuel Macron’s former security aide and bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, who was caught on tape beating up protesters in Paris last spring, and the Élysée Palace’s alleged attempts to obstruct the investigation. While most media outlets in France had initially lost interest in the case, Mediapart’s reporters, headed by star investigative journalist Fabrice Arfi, continued to dig. They discovered a startling connection between Benalla and the Russian oligarch Iskander Makhmudov, who has ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Shortly after the raid on Mediapart, a scathing report on the Benalla Affair by the French Senate called for an investigation of Macron’s aides, including his chief of staff.
The reason for the raid, according to Plenel, was to uncover the sources of recordings recently published by Mediapart, in which Benalla and Vincent Crase—former head of security for Macron’s party—discuss the case. “What they wanted was not the recordings, but information on who gave them to us, how we found them. That’s the only reason,” he says. “The justice department can investigate the facts in the [tapes]—but how we get them, that’s our secret. Protection of sources is the freedom of press. It is in the public interest that we must protect the people who give us information.”
It is not very common for law enforcement officials to raid the newsrooms of French newspapers, but Plenel and his team were not entirely surprised. In the past two years, they’ve noticed that Macron has grown increasingly hostile toward the press. “He is not a liberal,” Plenel says of Macron. “He just pretends to be.”
Last year, the French newspaper Le Point revealed that Macron was weighing a plan to limit the power of the press by creating a new agency that would be tasked with regulating the media in France to make sure it’s “neutral.” Macron was quoted as saying that in his opinion, French journalists are too focused on themselves instead of the good of the country. “‘A free and independent press’ is a traditional expression in the US. In France, they don’t say we need a free and independent press. Macron said we need a ‘neutral and controlled’ press. That is his way of saying it,” says Plenel.
|“There is an authoritarian evolution to this president. Not only with the press, but with many fundamental rights.”|
While outside of France Macron is considered to be a stalwart liberal, Plenel sees it differently. “There is an authoritarian evolution to this president. Not only with the press, but with many fundamental rights. That’s very curious. Macron is ultra-liberal in his economic [thinking], but anti-liberal [when it comes to] politics, the press, the freedom of opinion, the freedom of manifestation.”
French presidents being hostile to the press is not new in itself, says Plenel. “There was hostility from Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy, but it was not so [blunt]. There were attacks against the freedom of press—but with Macron, there is a program. He wants the press controlled by oligarchs who are friends of his and also through political, judicial oppression of the press. His dream is, I repeat, a neutral and controlled press. For us, it’s a democratic nightmare.”
This change in Macron’s attitude initially caught Plenel by surprise. Mediapart had previously interviewed Macron, before and after his election. “But we are independent, and they don’t want a media that is really independent.”
He adds: “It’s not Erdogan, Orbán, Salvini, Putin, Trump, or Bolsonaro, but within the different context of French culture, it’s more or less the same evolution. A very, very strong ideological link to oligarchs and very powerful financial powers.”
Macron’s anti-press agenda may come as a surprise to many outside observers who consider France a strong liberal democracy with a strong and independent press. But as Simon Kuper once noted in the Financial Times, in France the media ecosystem and industry norms have not always aligned with what most media scholars would call independent journalism. The elite French news media, as Kuper wrote, is known to be very close, practically intertwined, with the country’s political and business elites. Many stories about cronyism among the top echelons of business and politics never make it to the newspapers and spread only as rumors within those circles.
|“It’s not Erdogan, Orbán, Salvini, Putin, Trump, or Bolsonaro, but within the different context of French culture, it’s more or less the same evolution. A very, very strong ideological link to oligarchs and very powerful financial powers.”|
When asked how many of the country’s influential newspapers Macron has sway with, Plenel answers plainly: “All of them. There are good journalists who fight for their independence, but all the big media in France are controlled by oligarchs with industrial activities that are not press or information: luxury, telecom, arms dealing, and so on.”
This landscape proved to be fertile ground for the new upstart that Plenel, the former editor-in-chief of Le Monde, co-founded 11 years ago after being forced out of the newspaper. Plenel and his business partner Marie-Hélène Smiejan-Wanneroy decided to pursue a business model that was considered an outlier in those days (and, to a large degree, today): Mediapart has no advertising and relies only on subscription revenues.
Ten years ago, at the height of the advertising boom that made people consider companies like BuzzFeed to be the future of journalism, Plenel’s plan looked outdated. Most newspapers were still caught up in the then-fashionable notion that data and information “has to be free.”
Indeed, during the first four years of Mediapart it looked like the venture would fail. The inflection point came when it revealed secret recordings made by the butler of Liliane Bettencourt, then the richest woman in France, that revealed the L’Oreal heiress had received a sizable tax rebate despite a government crackdown on wealthy tax evaders. The Bettencourt Affair, as the scandal later came to be known, ended up implicating prominent political figures and even threatened the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy for a while.
Mediapart reached another high when it revealed that Jérôme Cahuzac, then the budget minister in François Hollande’s government, evaded taxes and concealed his money in Swiss bank accounts. Most newspapers ignored the story and didn’t follow up on it. Cahuzac threatened to sue, but Mediapart was ultimately vindicated when Cahuzac was forced to resign and was later convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for tax fraud. From this point onwards, Mediapart launched a string of investigations into the most powerful politicians in France and their connections to big business. The organization’s journalistic success propelled a constant growth in the number of paid subscribers to the website.
“With our economic model, our independence is only linked to the support of the public. We are not linked to powerful politicians or [firms]. We are only linked to the public’s right to know, and they don’t accept that, the state,” says Plenel.
Although its reporting staff is still pretty small at less than 60, Mediapart has been able to set the agenda for the French media time and again. Two years ago, the Stigler Center (publisher of this blog) decided to create a case study on Mediapart’s business model, to be taught in MBA classes. At the time, 2016, Mediapart had 110,000 subscribers and a net profit of €1.9 million. The company ended 2018 with 155,000 paid subscribers and a net profit of €2 million.
While these numbers are pretty small compared to most important news organizations in France and the United States, Mediapart’s profit margins are impressive, considering the sharp decline that most news organizations around the world are currently experiencing, particularly outlets that focus on accountability journalism.
Mediapart is a rare example, Plenel agrees, and it’s difficult to see how the subscription-only business model can support the democratic need for a large and ambitious news organization able to hold the powerful to account. But the rare hostility displayed by France’s top politicians toward a small start-up—one that has an ownership structure and business model that immunizes it from commercial and political pressure—may be evidence that most news outlets in France are too close to business and political elites. In such an environment, a small, independent, and stubborn group of journalists can have a lot of influence.
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