On the stark neon-blue set of TV channel CNews, the gadfly political commentator Éric Zemmour has debated all comers on his pet issues of immigration, Islam and the decline of France. At least seven ministers from President Emmanuel Macron’s government have jousted against Zemmour this year on the primetime show Facing the News.

Twice convicted in court of racial or religious provocation, the extreme rightwinger is now seeking to parlay the notoriety he built up on the current affairs channel into a presidential run and is expected to soon declare his candidacy in France’s elections set for April.

Zemmour has come from nowhere in the past month to become one of the most popular potential candidates after Macron and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, with one poll last week showing he could capture up to 15 per cent of the vote in the first round, which would severely dent her chances.

“It’s my turn,” he wrote in his new book, France Has Not Said Its Last Word. His rise is a sign of the increasing clout of CNews, a TV channel backed by conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré that critics liken to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News in the US, which championed former president Donald Trump and rightwing causes.

Owned by media group Vivendi, CNews has doubled its audience share in four years to reach second place among the country’s four 24-hour news channels. Its business model pairs a low-cost news operation with brash debates on topics from violent crime to the glories of Napoleon.

Eric Zemmour has moved from political obscurity to public prominence by exploiting issues such as immigration and security © Daniel Cole/AP

CNews is not yet as influential as Fox in the US, nor is Zemmour as popular as Trump. But rival politicians are lamenting how the channel is setting the terms of the national debate and deepening rifts in an already divided society.

The key to the recent success of both CNews and Zemmour is the lesson he drew from the UK’s vote for Brexit and Trump’s election triumph: be radical, even outrageous, if you want to win. His latest attention-grabbing sally was to demand a ban on “foreign” names such as Mohammed and Kevin.

“One doesn’t win from the centre any more,” Zemmour says he told Le Pen in a secret meeting earlier this year, when she tried to convince him not to stand. “People expect firmness and conviction, even radicalism.”

The CNews phenomenon has surprised many in the French media industry who thought that strict broadcast regulations would make it impossible to launch an opinion channel. The Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA) requires channels to showcase a range of opinions and impartially dole out time to politicians, especially during campaigns.

Chart showing that Zemmour threatens to outflank Le Pen

There are no such broadcast rules in the US so Murdoch, the News Corp billionaire, turned Fox into a conservative mouthpiece.

Gérald-Brice Viret, head of programming at Vivendi’s TV operation, says France’s broadcast regulations mean that CNews could never be anything like Fox News. “We are not populists but we are popular,” he adds. “And obviously that makes everyone angry.” 

But Roland Lescure, a member of parliament for Macron’s La République en Marche party, says there are still dangers. “The risk of CNews, when you look at what Fox News started as and became, is the showbizification of news, which allows any debate to become hysterical and extremist and move away from moderation, simplifying complex questions on matters such as health and Covid-19 vaccines,” he says.

Macron’s political party decided to allow its representatives to appear on CNews if they wanted, but “because we are in the moderate camp, usually our people look like the nice guy who’s being bashed,” adds Lescure.

Recent polls have Marine Le Pen as one of the two candidates most likely to reach the run-off in the 2022 presidential election © Daniel Cole/AP

Attendees at a rally of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party on September 12 © Daniel Cole/AP

‘Political weapon of war’

The rise of CNews comes as France’s once staid media — nearly all the major papers and TV channels are either state-backed or owned by billionaire businessmen — is in a period of tumult. Decade-old regulations have failed to keep up with the high-speed news cycle or the spread of social media.

A period of unprecedented consolidation is also under way. Key outlets will soon change hands if regulators approve pending deals, such as the proposed merger of the country’s two biggest private broadcasters TF1 and M6.

Bolloré, Vivendi’s biggest shareholder, stands to be a big beneficiary of the dealmaking. If it wins regulatory approval, Vivendi plans to buy the rest of the French media and retail group Lagardère that it does not already own. That would hand it Europe 1 radio, Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper and celebrity magazine Paris Match. Although such old media assets do not bring in much profit, they are closely followed by the business and political elite and help shape French public opinion.

Macron, then a novice politician, appeared on the cover of Paris Match eight times during his long-shot bid for the presidency in 2017, and his ministers frequently grace the cover of JDD on Sundays.

Eric Zemmour appearing on CNews, he was dropped from the Facing the News show, after his screen time led to complaints from some presidential hopefuls © Serge Tenani/Hans Lucas/Reuters

Anti-Zemmour protesters earlier this year, accusing him of Islamophobia © Thibault Camus/AP

The 63-year-old Zemmour, who is married with three children, recently got his first Paris Match cover, when he was pictured in the sea embracing his 28-year campaign adviser Sarah Knafo. Speculation has been rife over whether it was a deliberate publicity stunt to boost his campaign or a paparazzi scoop with a long lens.

The extent to which billionaire owners of French media influence coverage has long been the subject of speculation. Direct interventions are hard to prove, but critics note how business newspaper Les Echos tiptoes around coverage of its owner LVMH boss Bernard Arnault, while the Dassault family’s Le Figaro espouses a conservatism on economic and security issues that dovetails with its defence interests.

“It’s never explicit. It’s always implicit,” says one industry executive. “But with CNews, Vincent Bolloré went much further. He showed that you can take a strong editorial line and transform a TV channel into a political weapon of war. The fear now is he could do that with all these other [media] properties.”

Chart showing that CNews is the second most watched 24-hour news channel in France

The birth of CNews

CNews, like Zemmour’s political ambitions, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was born out of the ashes of a month-long strike at Vivendi’s TV news operation in 2016. Then called i-Télé, it was a conventional 24-hour news channel without a particular political slant. Zemmour had his own show on the channel until 2014, when he was fired for allegedly minimising France’s role in the Holocaust in an interview with an Italian newspaper.

I-Télé was losing roughly €30m a year and was faced with two new competitors after the TF1-owned LCI news channel moved from paid to free-to-air, and state-backed France Info launched its own news channel. The spark for the strike was the controversial hire of a star presenter, but it soon metastasised into a broader protest against Vivendi’s de facto new boss — Bolloré, who had become board chair with a roughly 15 per cent stake.

Bolloré had started dictating strategy at Vivendi’s pay-TV operator Canal Plus, firing its top executives and killing one of its best-known shows, Les Guignols, an irreverent mock newscast presented by puppets. The Breton billionaire had also long supported conservative politicians like Nicolas Sarkozy, so i-Télé journalists wanted assurances that their newsroom would remain independent.

Incumbent French president Emmanuel Macron is the election first-round favourite, despite populist challengers © Lionel Bonaventure/POOL/AFP/Getty

But the protest at i-Télé backfired. Bolloré saw it as an opportunity to clear out the newsroom to cut costs, says one former employee. During the strike, he would get regular updates on the number of journalists who had accepted buyouts, and urged the bosses to convince more to leave. By the end, nearly one-third of the newsroom of 120 had quit.

A few months later, i-Télé was rebranded CNews with a slogan that promised “news, analysis and opinions”. Serge Nedjar, the longtime Bolloré lieutenant in charge of the turnround, put together a schedule built around talk shows, which were cheaper to produce than on-the-ground reporting.

People close to Bolloré say he believed that the French media was too leftwing and saw CNews as a necessary alternative to defend liberal economic ideas and cover issues that other media neglected. The tycoon, they say, was particularly concerned about security and immigration and saw Zemmour as a key voice to raise these issues.

The emphasis on debate over news was also a good business strategy, says Vivendi executive Viret. “If we had done the same format as other news channels, we would have all vampirised each other,” he adds.

CNews often focuses on sensitive and explosive themes, such as security, immigration and the violence in cities © Ameer Al-Halibi/AFP/Getty

Another key move was promoting Pascal Praud, a silver-haired, bespectacled radio personality best known as a football commentator. Praud’s morning show brought together a regular cast of journalists and analysts to comment on the day’s news. With a curmudgeonly style, he often selected topics favoured by the far-right, such as anti-police protests, the veil worn by some Muslim women, and climate change scepticism. He acted as a hands-off moderator who often let the panellists clash — the louder the debate, the better.

Ratings began to climb. Nedjar defended the channel’s positioning in Le Journal du Dimanche last year, telling the newspaper that it was “important to listen to all opinions, even the most disturbing and politically incorrect ones”.

He added: “We were the first to focus, from the outset and unfailingly, on certain sensitive and explosive themes, such as security, immigration, the environment, or the violence in our cities. Our competitors resisted covering these topics.”

Critics counter that CNews has gone too far. “Bolloré crossed a red line by handing a media outlet over to the extreme right,” says a prominent adviser to French chief executives and politicians. “A taboo has been broken. That is what has many people so worried.”

Benoît Hamon, the Socialist party’s 2017 presidential candidate, said last year: “Mr Bolloré, captain of industry at the head of a far-right TV station, is pouring petrol all over the place and calmly lighting the fire with Zemmour, Praud and their merry band.”

In his backing of CNews, conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré is likened to News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch © Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

Zemmour’s return to CNews in 2019 helped drive ratings to new heights. Last May, CNews briefly dethroned BFM as the top 24-hour news channel, prompting celebrations at Vivendi. But even its best rated shows tend to attract 600,000 to 800,000 viewers, well shy of the roughly 6m that watch the traditional nightly news on TF1.

Although Vivendi does not disclose the news channel’s financial figures, Viret says its losses have narrowed significantly and that it aims to break even next year. Unlike Fox in the US, which has long been a profit engine for Murdoch’s business, CNews represents a very small part of Vivendi, so the financial stakes are not high for Bolloré.

Rise of the extreme right

The rise to prominence of the extreme right in France over the past 30 years has steadily pushed the issues promoted by Zemmour — Islamism, immigration, educational failings and the supposed decline of French civilisation — into the heart of the French political debate.

In his telling, Zemmour’s childhood was one of assimilation from Algerian-Jewish roots after his family migrated to France during the war of independence in the north African country.

Zemmour has espoused the “great replacement theory” that suggests Muslim immigrants will overwhelm the native inhabitants of Europe, and has a gift for polemical, anti-woke, anti-green, anti-migrant hyperbole that many voters find attractive. “No small town, no small village in France is safe from a savage squad of Chechen, Kosovar, Maghrebi or African gangs who steal, rape, pillage, torture and kill,” he writes in his new book.

In his earlier writings, the commentator has also slammed the supposed negative effects of feminism on society, and in his book The French Suicide wrote nostalgically about the days when a man could grope a woman without being hit with a sexual harassment complaint.

The CSA has struggled to rein in CNews and its star. It fined the channel €200,000 last year for a tirade in which Zemmour called young migrants thieves, murderers and rapists and said they “must be sent back”. Zemmour’s words, said the CSA, incited hatred and discrimination.

The CSA has also issued repeated warnings to CNews for not showing diverse opinions, including one for giving too much airtime to Le Pen’s party during regional elections. Viret defended the channel: “We respect all our obligations on airtime to the second.”

Over the summer, supporters plastered Paris with posters that blared “Zemmour president” in capital letters. French media began a steady drumbeat of speculation over his intentions, which Zemmour stoked as he prepared to launch his book.

Macron allies and leftwing politicians argued that the CSA should treat Zemmour as a candidate even though he had yet to declare. That would mean counting his time spent on screen so as to ensure that he did not get more airtime than other candidates. In mid-September, the CSA did exactly that. The next day CNews said Zemmour would no longer appear on Facing the News. Viret says it would have been “totally unworkable” to apply the CSA’s new approach.

Zemmour took to Twitter to complain that the CSA had overstepped its authority: “I will not be quiet. #STOPcensorship.” But since he stepped down from his show, he has appeared frequently on other CNews broadcasts as a guest, and has benefited from intense coverage in other outlets.

He did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Protesters gathered in June to denounce the ‘growing influence’ of Vincent Bolloré on the Vivendi media group © Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty

The latest opinion polls suggest that Macron and Le Pen are the two candidates most likely to top the polls in April and therefore face each other in a run-off in May, as they did in 2017. That would exclude Zemmour and others from the final round.

Zemmour, CNews and other rightwing news outlets, however, have already changed the terms of French political debate and moved it in the direction of the bitter confrontations that characterise politics today in the US, forcing almost every candidate to focus intently on issues such as immigration and crime.

After rightwing magazine Valeurs Actuelles published a call to arms from retired French generals this year complaining about laxity, Islamism and “hordes” of immigrants, and hinting at the need for a coup d’état, one poll found a majority of the French supported the signatories and nearly half agreed France “will soon have a civil war”. 

“More than ever, combative politics works,” says Vincent Martigny, politics professor at Nice university. “You could even say that Bolloré is following the example of Murdoch.” 

Letter in response to this article:

The ironic back-story of France’s rightwing pundit / From Francis Ghilès, Senior Associate Research Fellow, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, Barcelona, Spain

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