Nicolas Sarkozy’s entry to the Elysée in May 2007 was hailed not just by the right-wing press—‘What a victory!’ exclaimed Le Figaro—but even more sonorously by the liberal centre-left. At Le Monde, Jean-Marie Colombani confidently affirmed that the result showed ‘the country wants to be more dynamic, more offensive, more efficient’—in a word, summed up by the paper’s headline, ‘To Change’. Even the nominally left-wing ‘Anyone But Sarko’ Libération served its mourning readers a dose of stoic realism: ‘he owes his victory to his provocative honesty . . . in keeping with the wishes of the public . . . get ready’. Over the past ten years, the French media had been more inclined to chastise the populace than applaud its political choices—in its rebellious votes for the candidates of the far left and right in the 2002 presidential elections, for example. The 2007 vote seemed to represent a realignment of the electorate with the unanimous opinion—la pensée unique—of the media: that France should comply with the orderly alternation between centre-left and centre-right parties that liberal democracy required. Hence the sigh of relief from Le Monde when mainstream candidates triumphed in 2007’s first round. Colombani again:
History will record this beautiful day in April, in this sunny France, with its long queues of electors, old, young, couples with their children, all patient, all mobilized. Giving the image of a serene and civically-minded country which is rediscovering politics . . . showing its will to reappropriate its destiny.
The electorate has more often dissented than complied with this point of view. In 1995 Prime Minister Alain Juppé’s attacks on welfare provision provoked the largest protests since 1968. In 2005, the eu constitutional referendum was met with a resounding ‘No’. In each case politicians and media pressed for France to ‘change’, ‘work harder’, and generally align itself more closely with the Anglo-Saxon neoliberal model. When the public opposed these changes, the conclusion from the frustrated advocates was that theirs was a failing, archaic country, if not racist and xenophobic.
Unanimous thinking—a more accurate translation of the renowned pensée unique would be ‘the only thinking’—is not, of course, confined to France. But in the Anglo-Saxon countries, from the eighties on, the free-market agenda has generally been spearheaded by politicians, with the media playing an adjutant role. Thatcher’s blitzkrieg against trade unions, state ownership and public services was driven through by the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, and the latter two campaigns at least met with scepticism if not disapprobation from large sections of the media in the uk. More recently, the wars prosecuted by Bush and Blair in Afghanistan and Iraq also encountered some media opposition: Downing Street demanded the removal of two bbc chiefs over a broadcast that threw doubt on Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. In France, however, the structural positions emerging since the 1970s have been reversed, with the media playing the leading programmatic role. It is from news anchors, radio presenters, mediatized intellectuals and editorialists that the ‘there is no alternative’ campaign has been most sustained.
Another difference in the French scene: this overpopulated ménage has been closely monitored and satirized since the nineties by a small but determined band of observers including Serge Halimi, Pierre Rimbert and Henri Maler, who publish their findings online at Acrimed and in Le Plan B magazine. Why despair when you can laugh? This spirit drives the most exceptional product of their work: Halimi’s Les Nouveaux chiens de garde, a short, explosive book originally published in 1997 and now substantially updated. At the outset of Sarkozy’s tenure, this scathing and consistently hilarious political pamphlet reads like a satirical preface to the Sarko experience. It gives an exceptionally well-documented account of the operations of the French media in the spirit of Voltaire. Halimi is an editor at Le Monde diplomatique, and author of three other books, including a 600-page study from 2004 of the neoliberal order worldwide, Le Grand bond en arrière. The subject of Les Nouveaux chiens de garde brings out the mischievous jester in him as he delivers the story of this ‘universe of connivance’ with great pace and clarity.
What Halimi describes, though he does not explain its origins, could be said to have begun with the crystallization of French media and political elites around the new liberal agenda; the key moment in this process being the establishment of the Fondation Saint-Simon in 1982 by François Furet (president at Sciences Po), Roger Fauroux (director of the multinational Saint-Gobain), Alain Minc (Fauroux’s associate) and Pierre Rosanvallon. As Rimbert elsewhere explains, this ‘social-liberal society for reflection’ recruited its members along a modernizing arc spanning ‘the intelligent right to the intelligent left’. Its programme was to purge both left and right of their atavisms, and set the country squarely on a liberal-atlanticist track.
The Saint-Simonians’ first independent political initiative was Edouard Balladur’s presidential campaign in 1995: 13 members out of the 36-strong committee which the then Prime Minister set up to produce the report, France in the year 2000, came from this one think-tank. The Balladur commission defined the contours of the ‘only politics possible’. Its backers form a tight-knit caste, comprising three layers. One is drawn from the media: celebrity intellectuals, television and radio commentators, a small band of highly paid journalists; second, politics: a number of ministers frequently conjugally linked to the first group—including Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to tv newsreader Christine Ockrent, Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo to another tv anchorwoman, Beatrice Schönberg, ex-Socialist minister and imf director Dominique Strauss-Kahn to a third newsreader, Anne Sinclair. Then there is business: figures who between them control nearly every paper, radio station and television channel in the country—Martin Bouygues, Serge Dassault, Arnaud Lagardère. These three layers are in constant symbiosis. Sarkozy epitomizes this process. The new President has been courting the media for 25 years—who doesn’t call him tu? Laurent Joffrin (Saint-Simonian, editor at Le Nouvel Observateur and now leading the Rothschild team at Libération) has responded to such a challenge with untroubled, fraternal affection: ‘I do! He does the same to everyone. That doesn’t prevent me from giving him a good rollicking sometimes.’