A lively and dirigiste political communication sustained by interest ties with the media owners

« Oui, on se réveillera ! Oui, on sortira de cette torpeur, qui, pour un tel peuple, est la honte : et quand la France sera réveillée, quand elle ouvrira les yeux, quand elle distinguera, quand elle verra ce qu'elle a devant elle et à côté d'elle, elle reculera, cette France, avec un frémissement terrible, devant ce monstrueux forfait qui a osé l'épouser dans les ténèbres et dont elle a partagé le lit. Les sceptiques sourient et insistent ; ils disent : « N'espérez rien. Ce régime, selon vous, est la honte de la France. Regardez donc la tribune, la presse, l'intelligence, la parole, la pensée, tout ce qui était la liberté, a disparu. Hier cela remuait, cela s'agitait, cela vivait, aujourd'hui cela est pétrifié. Eh bien, on est content, on s'accommode de cette pétrification, on en tire parti, on y fait ses affaires, on vit là-dessus comme à l'ordinaire. Ne vous faites pas illusion, ceci est solide, ceci est stable, ceci est le présent et l’avenir. »
Victor Hugo, Napoléon le Petit, 1863.

PART 1: A lively and squared monitoring of the media

Control and infiltration of the media

Thought the last monarch and the latest president of the Hexagon experienced and evolved in dissimilar media environments, their respective relationship with the fourth power and the degree of freedom they conceded to it are interesting to compare since again Napoleon III’s background in that domain seems inspirational for Sarkozy.

Before handling this cross-centuries comparative analysis, two limiting criteria should be taken into account to adjust the analytical lens: first the almost unlimited room for maneuver of the emperor in comparison with Sarkozy’s inheritance of a matured media system and second the very nature of the media and their evolving role in shaping political leadership in France.

Napoleon III

The main mass medium of the mid 19th century was the press, a tool of communication the emperor happened to knowvery well since he extensively relied upon it during his exile years.

Since the emperor seated his legitimacy on popular plebiscite, controlling the perception of the French population of his rule via a strict monitoring of the press was primal. D’Alembert cited in his Dictionnaire Politique Napoléonien the emperor saying according to which he “must preserve the freedom of the press from the two excesses that compromise it: the arbitrary and its own license” (1849).

Accordingly, quick and radical measures were taken to ‘protect the freedom of press’, and mainly the Press Law of July 16th 1850 which “required all articles on political or theological questions to be signed, and handicapped editors in many other ways” (Thompson, 1955) like the mandatory caution deposit imposed on editors as a proof of their “good will” (in reality the latter served as a gambling card the authorities used for blackmailing the indocile publications).

Miller details even further the silencing of the press with evocating the Decree Law of 1852 which “introduced a system whereby newspapers directors were allowed only two warnings before a newspaper was liable to suspension” (1997). Such a situation ended up in a press whose maneuver of action was limited to the transcription of the imperial accomplishments, and preferably in a gracious tone: a state of affairs denounced by an angry Regnault citing the British Times saying that “Louis Bonaparte had put civil liberties under the heel of his boots” (1907) and an exiled Hugo bemoaning the suppression of one hundred publications “twenty in Paris and eighty in the provinces” (1863).

From the latter, the first decade of the French Second Empire witnessed a state-reorganization and control of the journalism and the suppression of its watchdog leverage endangering the sate stability. As a matter of fact, Louis Napoleon used again the populist card to justify his censorship by stating in a speech delivered to the Parliament the 29th of March 1852: “why was not France moved by the restrictions on press freedom and individual liberties? It is because they have degenerated into license and odious excesses that threatened the rights of each one of you” (1868).

At this point, the Second Empire was not satisfied by the control of its national press, but attempted twice to put under its grasp the foreign one. Hugo explains that the emperor brought into court two Belgian publications (“The Bulletin Français” and “The Nation”), but after the failure of his attempt (both were acquitted by the Belgian justice) he decided to impose a ban over their entrance into the French territory; the hostile British press as well was targeted via the expulsion of its correspondents in France (1863). These attempts proved to be “half successes” for Hugo since the foreign journalists escaped the imperial license via various stratagems and subterfuges.

Nicolas Sarkozy

One century and a half later, such a direct censorship of the freedom and independence of the press being simply unfeasible and unpractical, Nicolas Sarkozy engaged a lively management and control of the media yet through more insidious ways. Sarkozy’s Bonapartist thirst of control and what it engendered in terms of decline of press and media freedom was recently unveiled by the 2010 annual report of Reporters Without Borders which classified France at the 44th position (that is to say a fall of 33 places) and made its General Secretary, Jean-François Julliard, assert that “the French government is no longer considered as respectful of the freedom of information”.

Once the French contemporary media scene under scrutiny, it appears that to achieve the monitoring of the information, Sarkozy’s strategy relied upon the combination of three powerful mechanisms:

  1. an influential clientelism with the French media owners,

  2. a direct interference in the sector via its reforming, and an indirect censorship

  3. and finally a state-sponsored surveillance and repression of the journalists.

Sarkozy's five loyal media musketeers

(The Guardian, 2010)

1. Arnaud Laguardère (Paris Match, Elle, Journal du Dimanche, Télé 7 Jours, Première Magazine, France Dimanche, and dozens of news and radio stations and cable channels)

2. Martin Bouygues (TF1, Eurosport, and a variety of cable channels)

3. Bernard Arnault (La Tribune, Les Echos, Investir, and Radio Classique)

4. Serge Dassault (Socpresse Group, Le Figaro, Valeurs Actuelles)

5. François Pinault (Le Point, Europe 1).

Sarkozy: influential clientelism with the French media owners (1/4)

On the clientelism chapter, Sarkozy did not create anything, but rather turned into his advantage the current organization of the media ownership in France. As explained by Sachs, “the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few well-connected industrialists has been building for years, but the circles of influence, wealth, and political power have converged to an unusual degree in Mr. Sarkozy's France” (2007).

The happy few mentioned below happen to be Sarkozy’s closest intimate friends; accordingly and even if the president do not possess any media outlet, he can rely upon the support of his powerful network since “two thirds of all French newspapers and magazines are owned by the president's close friends Dassault and Lagardère whose affiliated company, Hachette, also owns most of France's publishing houses and a large part of the book and magazine distribution network” (2010) as explained by Willsher. The Guardian’s journalist proposes an even further description of Sarkozy’s de facto “media empire” through revealing the listing of his “band of five loyal media musketeers”.

Further investigations showed that Sarkozy’s circle of influent media friends encompasses other grands patrons (and even powerful advertisers) as listed by Bénilde (2006): Jean-Claude Decaux (world leader in urban advertising), Gérard de Riquemorel (Hachette Fillipacchi Médias), Nicolas de Tavernost (M6), Arnaud de Puyfontaine (Mondadori France), Thierry Saussez (Image et Stratégie), Philippe Gaumont (FCB), Jean Luc Mano (France 2 general manager), Edouard de Rotschild (Libération), and Stéphane Courbit (Endemol France).

Sarkozy: an indirect interference in the sector (2/4)

"Rarely in the course of the last decades has the media risked becoming so much the instrument of a single mind-set, and yet at the same time so scorned by people in power," declared a coalition of six French journalist unions cited by Sachs who pointed out the “direct presidential interference” (in editorial decisions) or “the self-censorship on the part of overly cautious editors tiptoeing around unflattering news about their bosses and their bosses' important friends” (2007).

Several incidents are worth mentioning at this regard, all revealed by the few remaining independent publications. The Leftist Marianne for example brought up a “mysterious wave of suppressing of unflattering articles” citing the cover story of Paris Match which was about to reveal the fact that Sarkozy’s ex-wife Cecilia did not vote at the second tour of the presidential election but which was pulled out at the last minute (Kirby, 2007). Sachs for his part related several pre-election incidents, among which one involving Arnault’s Tribune. This publication commissioned an opinion poll that revealed that the Socialist candidate Royal “inspired more confidence on economic questions than Sarkozy; La Tribune prepared a front page headline to that effect, with the full story scheduled to run inside, but on the eve of publication, the chief editor killed the story” (Sachs, 2007). Bénilde finally denounced an “unbearable mark of media allegiance to the political power”(2006) while relating the firing of Alain Génestar, director of Paris Match, because he published a cover story showing Cecilia Sarkozy with her lover in Paris streets in June 2006. Infuriated, Sarkozy interrupted his friend’s – Laguardère – holidays in the Bahamas, urging him to return back to Paris to “handle this impertinence”(Dély & Hassoux, 2008).

Be it self-censorship or presidential interference, media control in France’s Sarkozy gave rise to a broad wave of protests emanating either from professionals like Gozlan, a Marianne editorialist who declared that Sarkozy is “really a danger for the freedom of expression and critical sense; it means there is a kind of court around him; it’s the first time we see such a phenomenon” (Kirby, 2010) or from politicians such as Arnaud Montebourg who deplored the fact that the “mainstream media are becoming markedly concentrated in his (Sarkozy’s) favour” (Willsher, 2010).

On that, Sarkozy repeatedly denied any direct interfering in the media sphere, in a time his spin doctor since the late 1980s, Thierry Saussez, did not contradict this accusation and declared to the BBC that “the president enjoys keeping the press on its toes” (Kirby, 2008).

Another aspect of the president’s clientelism is his not-exclusively media-oriented habit of returning favors to friends. While still minister of Budget and Finances, in the preparatory phase of his candidacy to the presidency, he fought for “maintaining the controversial tax abatement (7650 Euros per year) of journalists” (Bénilde, 2006). One year later, an « extremely shocking » event (cf the French Union of Journalism) revived the suspicions: as reported by The Economist, the former campaign director of Sarkozy, Laurent Solly, was appointed head of TF1, supposedly after a phone call of Sarkozy to his old friend Martin Bouygues (2007). Other examples of the influence the president exerts on the media decision-making circles were noted down by The Guardian whose journalist Willsher was astonished while underlining that “two radio satirists (Stéphane Guillon and Didier Porte) described by Sarkozy as "insulting, vulgar and nasty", were sacked one week later by their direction” (2010).

Sarkozy: a state-sponsored surveillance/repression of the journalists (3/4)

All these incidents could have gone unnoticed since they were disseminated in the continuous overflow of presidential presence in the news but they all surfaced after Le Monde launched a crusade against Sarkozy’s monitoring of the sector. This publication’s campaign compiled grave infringements to the freedom of press since Sarkozy’s access to power.

First of all, Le Monde along with Le Canard Enchainé accused the Elysée of spying on journalists via illegal phone-tapping supposedly by using the DCRI’s (Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur) services. This accusation was confirmed by one of Sarkozy’s special advisors (Henri Guaino) in Le Monde’s columns while advocating the supremacy of the raison d’état over the freedom of the press; accordingly this allegation was taken very seriously and ended up the 4th of November 2010 in the auditing of the General Director of the National Police (Péchenard) and the DCRI’s Director (Squarcini) by the French Parliament (as rapported by Le Parisien in its edition of the same day). Another revelation, issued this time by Médiapart - the information website at the origins of the Bettencourt scandal – accused the French president of having entrusted the French secret services with the spying on two of their journalists who were investigating the Karachi and the Bettencourt affairs.

Second, Le Monde piled up several testimonials of journalists who were indicted in 2008 with the charge of “retention of information”. As a matter of fact, these journalists refused to unveil their sources on the Bettencourt affair in the name of the “source protection” law. Sarkozy’s answer was instantaneous: few days later, he entrusted the National Assembly with the examination of a law amendment according to which “the preservation of journalists’ sources can exceptionally be dismissed when an overriding public interest justifies it”. Scalbert awarded then France of the title of “European champion of judiciary actions against the press (related to sources preservation in Affaires d’Etat): in one week, five house-searches, two indictments, and four summonses for journalists” (2008), considering by this way that the freedom of press in France was exposed to a severe devolution.

Sarkozy: a direct interference in the sector via its reforming (4/4)

The rise of a Sarkophobic editorial line consequent to these revelations among the professionals, and mainly among the five public channels (FR2, FR3, FR4, FR5, and FRO) as explained by Wells lead to a presidential coup d’éclat: Sarkozy decided to burst into the sector by first ending “all advertising on public television channels” (2009). This surprising measure caught short all the media professionals in France regarding its stake: the transference of one billion Euros per year of advertising revenues from the public to the private sector of TV broadcasting. Saint-Martin considered it as both a threatening signal addressed to dissident public media and “a gift to Sarkozy’s friends” (2009). As a matter of fact, the journalist identified four main recipients of this presidential largesse: Martin Bouygues (TF1, highly dependent upon advertising which accounted for 68,7 % of its turnover in 2007), Vincent Bolloré (Direct 8), Arnaud Laguardère (Virgin 17 and Gulli), and finally Nicolas de Tavernost (M6 Groupe).

As if this was not enough, in December 2008, Télérama released a disturbing confidential document: the 2008’s TF1 Livre Blanc (an internal document covering the strategic planning of the Bouygues Groupe affiliate). In fact, Soubrouillard explains that “startling resemblances between the recommendations of this document and Sarkozy’s reforming of advertising in public TV broadcasting suggest that the president was strongly inspired by it” (2008).


In the same breath, Sarkozy continued his raid over public media and decided that from now on, the nomination of the presidents of both of Radio France and France Télévisions will be a presidential prerogative (with the symbolic approval of the CSA - Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel). Leroi explains that the head of state wanted the superseding of the president of Radio France, Jean-Paul Cluzel, who built up a strong resistance to Sarkozy’s seducing of the media and allowed his journalists to keep a critical standpoint vis à vis his politics. In a model of monitored media, even Cluzel’s « satisfactory bilan since his nomination in 2004 by the CSA -according to Médiamétrie, Radio France stations achieved a 24,6% of market penetration which represent 12,6 million daily listeners – that ended up in Radio France being the first radio group in France” (Leroi, 2009), is not compensating the damages it inflicts on Sarkozy’s image.

The trade association CGT Radio France launched at this occasion a large campaign of strikes among the sector in May 2009 under the slogan: “Where is the manipulation, in defending public service broadcasting and freedom of information or in appointing and dismissing authoritatively and unilaterally the presidents of France Télévisions and Radio France? No, Sarkozy will not muzzle the public service! » (2009). As a matter of fact, Sarkozy did: he replaced Cluzel by one of his closest friends, Jean-Luc Hees, who – among other things - signed in 2007 a flattering book of the UMP candidate (Sarkozy président ! Journal d'une élection) and whose first measure was the firing of Stéphane Guillon and Didier Porte, the very radio satirists that irritated the president more than once. The same scenario was reproduced for France Télévisions: Patrick de Carolis whose firm stand against Sarkozy’s reforms of the French public broadcasting , was tossed out and replaced by Rémy Pflimlin, the “foal of two very close collaborators of Sarkozy, Claude Guéant (the General Secretary of the Elysee), and Alain Minc” (Basqué & Psenny, 2010).

PART 2: A purposefully-designed communication strategy

Control and infiltration of the media

Detail of the April 1859’s 50 000 French francs allocated to the departmental press

(Brézol & Crozière, 1912)

Journal de Saône-el-Loire
1,000
Journal de Montbéliard
5oo
La Côle-d'Or
5.000
Courrier Populaire de Lille
1.200
Phare de Marseille
5.000
Aube
5.000
Gers
2.200
Journal de la Corse
600
Journal de Seine-et-Oise
380
Doubs
2.5oo
Le Bas-Rhin
9.000
Courrier du Cers
2.000

Napoleon III

The tip of the imperial iceberg directed at controlling the press, visible at the level of the enacted laws silencing the opposition and the physical repression of journalists, hides an amazingly well-organized machine de guerre. As a matter of fact, it was not before the early 1900s that confidential documents revealed the underlying foundations of Napoleon III’s communication strategy.

In their well-documented book Napoléon Le Néfaste, Brézol and Crozière disclosed the underlying mechanisms of the imperial press policy; and mainly the shaping of a state-defined editorial line for the newspapers, the seating and placing of pro-state redactors within the press crews, and finally a spiders’ web of direct state subventions into both already and soon-to-become allegiant publications. Accordingly, and on the first measure, the way the press was organized for the regional elections of April 1859 by the Press Division of the ministry of the Interior is revealing of the imperial dynamism in that domain. Brézol and Crozière came across this document and ended up with two plans of action. First, “the introduction of a comparative system of newspapers reading, in order to follow more subtly the political disputes department by department, via a daily reporting of electoral events” and second, “the insertion in the press of a political advertizing section, in which various journalists will prepare the opinion via correspondences, informational articles…etc” (1912). The ministerial report even self-congratulates the efforts deployed in applying this strategy which ended up in the squaring of 80 newspapers in less than three days; a situation that “allows the minister to prompt any polemic of his taste, and this wherever he wishes (at least in 150 newspapers) and in a very short delay” (Brézol & Crozière, 1912). Three additional dispositions are detailed by this report, and mostly: the grants-in-aid aimed at assuring either the existence or the dedication of the newspapers, the grants-in-aid aimed at publishing free extra-copies during electoral periods to sustain the imperial propaganda, and finally the grants-in-aid aimed at reinforcing the imperial editorial line through the integration of loyal redactors within the newspapers.

In addition, different sets of measures were applied for the provincial and the Paris-based press. For this latter, Brézol and Crozière revealed that a formal contract was signed between the ministry and the publications (for instance: Le Figaro, La France, Le Peuple, La Prairie, Le Messager de Paris, Le Public, and Le Dix-Decembre) assuring the weekly diffusion of (at least) 100 000 copies of issues filled exclusively by the lithographies of imperial candidates (1912). Concerning the departmental press, its attachment to Napoleon’s cause did not require any formal contracting, only the perception of a monthly state subvention.

Finally, the very same report ends up describing Napoleon III latest brainwave: the installment of a fake opposition newspaper, Le Siècle, whose director, M. Lavin, was daily (and secretly) received by the emperor to define “in which conditions he should fight the government, in the best interest of all” (Brézol & Crozière, 1912). Such an advanced and elaborated system of control of the press lasted a decade, and achieved its quintessential goal: the watering of the population with a state-defined editorial line (even if the dissidences were growing, especially from the elite either within the country or exiled in neighboring countries).

However, and almost in an overnight process, Louis Napoleon sharply decided to shift toward a more liberal press system. It is worth highlighting here that no motive compelled him in doing so besides his (personal) desire of discovering how the public opinion he relied upon so much appreciated his rule. As quoted by Miller, the emperor recognized this when he stated “I am isolated, I no longer hear anything” (1997). Again, this change in direction was engineered by Napoleon III as a transitional strategy during which he intended to adjust his populist discourse to the streets criticisms. The following relaxation of the Press Laws of 1868 lasted shorter than what was expected by the imperial ruler (since he was deposed in 1871), but resulted in a “flood of 150 new newspapers, mostly hostile” (Miller, 1997). Louis Bonaparte’s communication strategy was from the latter rather innovative, yet always under control; a fact that explains why “modern scholars have been impressed by his particular form of political manipulation” stated the Southern State University of California’s report on the French Second Empire, since he “pioneered a new form of mass politics in which authoritarian politicians could employ nationalist and populist tactics, to achieve genuine popularity”.

Nicolas Sarkozy

At this point, the well-oiled and thoughtful Bonapartist strategic vision vis a vis the fourth power has some echoes in Sarkozy’s approach of and relationship with the contemporary French media. Like the imperial censors who were entrusted with the shaping of the press headlines and the insertion of flattering articles (Barthelemy, 1889), Sarkozy as well extolled the virtues of intervening in the media through providing actively to its professionals what he wanted to see covered.

As explained by Cohen, a recurrent pattern of Sarkozy’s communication strategy was his communicators’ readiness and eagerness in “providing the journalists, week after week, with some “biscuit” as stated by the media jargon… He (Sarkozy) “releases worthy news”, he is a scoop-machine” (Cohen, 2006). By this way, being both the source and the recipient, Sarkozy participates lively in the process of newsworthiness selection, a process usually reserved to the editorialists.

In addition, a similar kind of practice was experimented the two first years of his presidency before a polemic stopped it sharp in December 2009: the insertion in the French press of Elysee-sponsored political polls. Here, and as explained by Le Parisien, the use of the French taxpayers money (estimated at 3,28 million Euros in 2008, and 1 989 million in 2009) for complacent thus questionable polls (they were conducted by an opinion polls institute affiliated to Le Figaro, which belongs to Dassault, one of Sarkozy’s “closest friends”) infuriated the Constitutional Council (2009). However, this short-lived calculation error should not mislead in evaluating Sarkozy’s communication strategy. Like Napoleon III, he established a well-studied approach vis a vis the media that came within reach of a line of attack thoughtfully matured. As a matter of fact, Sarkozy’s strategy was meticulously elaborated since more than twenty years.


April 1983: the 28 years old freshly-elected mayor of Neuilly-Sur-Seine landed in a media dreamland. As explained by Rocco, the commune he just conquered « shelters an extraordinary gold mine since it houses the headquarters of numerous advertising agencies and influent media and broadcasting groups such as UGC, Gaumont, Havas, Hachette Fillipacchi, Sacem…” (2007). The young and ambitious UMP mayor realized at that time how beneficial for the takeoff of his political career such an environment can be if used adroitly: within few weeks he created the “Neuilly Communication Club” whose placarded ambition was to give birth to a “French Communication’s Silicon Valley” as explained by Thierry Gaubert, president of the Caisse d’Epargne banking group and General Secretary of Neuilly Communication since its creation (Rocco, 2007). This select Club was a master hit, Sarkozy succeeded in attracting 50 powerful advertizers, industrials, and media tycoons.

like the one listed by Strategies Magazine;The young lawyer whose incisive sens des affaires attained its zenith in this period succeeded in seducing this establishment and patiently weaved a powerful networking, either via developing professional relations or via more personal interactions (urbane and mundane receptions, diners…). At this stage, Maitre Sarkozy « acknowledged the fact that controlling the information is necessary to political power, and that communication is capital” (Rocco, 2007) as explained by Thierry Saussez, communication advisor of Sarkozy and president of the SIG (Service d’Information du Gouvernement) since 2008. In the early 1990s, Sarkozy decided to reap the fruits of a decade of networking: he asked for and obtained the support of the Neuilly Communication Club in his governmental undertaking. Few months of powerful lobbying over the Elysee and a constant well thought of press after, Sarkozy entered the Mitterrand administration as Finance minister and spokesperson of the government, and finally attained his goal: minister of Communication. At this point, the trend was reversed. Sarkozy did not need to seduce the media; they instinctively courted him in order to traverse this strategic period of media evolution in France that witnessed the “creation of the free radios, the creation of Canal+ and M6, the privatization of TF1, the Evin Law on advertising…etc” as explained by Rocco (2007).

Some members of the Neuilly Communication Club

(Challenges Magazine, 2005)

Gérard de Roquemaurel Hachette
Guy Verrechia
UGC
Phillipe Gaumont
FCB
JC Decault
Decault advertising
JL Tournier
Sacem
Christian Courtin
Clarins
Nicolas de Tavernost
M6
Arnaud de Puyfontaine
EMAP France
Martin Sorrel
WPP
Dominique Baudis
CSA
FO Giesbert
Le Point
Claude Douce
Mc Cann Erikson
Liliane Bettencourt
L'OréaL
Dominique Comolli
Altadis
Alain de Pouzilhac
France 24
Martin Bouygues
TF1
Arnaud Laguardère
Active Medias

Nicolas Sarkozy

Being immerged in the communication world for more than a decade at that moment, his analysis underlined a sharp understanding of the winning ficelles of the French media to be used for political purposes. This insightful experience allowed him to elaborate a Bonapartist-like communication machine once elected head of state.

Like the Emperor, he dedicated considerable amounts of money to polish his image in the media. A military-like communication horde of 51 professionals entered the Elysee in 2007 in Sarkozy’s shade. Exit the sober Chirac’s twelve-person communication team: like Napoleon III, nothing was enough to Sarkozy’s thirst of communication policing.

First and to start with, a communiqué of the Elysée reported by Le Nouvel Observateur unveiled that 7,5 million Euros were devoted to the presidential public relations in 2009 (the 1,3 million Euros spent by Chirac the last year of his presidency pale into insignificance besides this, still according to the same source). Le Parisien (2009) detailed even further Sarkozy’s communication machine that encompasses: an internet strategic cell (7 collaborators, 500 000 Euros), the presidential press service (15 collaborators), two presidential speechwriters (Henri Guaino and Marie de Gandt, 290 368 93 Euros of annual salary for each one of them), an opinion polls cell (3,28 million Euros in 2008, and 1,989 million for 2009), a broadcasting service (24 technicians, in charge of transporting and installing for all the presidential speeches 8 tons of material including 45 boxes of material, up to 40 speakers, 1 to 6 panels, 10 to 30 flags…etc), a freshly-built TV studio within the Elysee (cost: 2,5 million Euros), and a technological gift for the Elysee-accredited journalists: a high-tech pressroom (cost: 500 000 Euros). Accordingly, the fortunes of political communication are scrupulously studied to polish the president’s image.

Limits to the control of the media

At this point, it is worth mentioning that both of the Emperor and the president’s communication strategies showed some limits which proved that they similarly failed in putting under their monitoring grasp the sector.

For instance, Napoleon III’s most bitter failure in that domain, and as reported by Regnault, occurred in 1868. In few words, one of the emperor relatives, a mysterious Pierre Bonaparte, killed two journalists (Victor Noir and Bernard Fonvielle). The imperial coat smoothed the affair for weeks; nothing filtered in the press, until the clandestine La Lanterne published it and engendered “a never-seen before hostile movement against the ruling dynasty around Victor Noir’s coffin” (Regnault, 1907).

The same applies for Sarkozy. The resisting bastions of independent press (Le Monde, Médiapart) successively revealed very embarrassing affairs for the president, among which the Clearstream’s affair and more recently the Bettencourt one (already labeled as Sarkozy’s “Woerthgate”). Consequently, a wind of change blew over France’s editorial offices; this scratched image is by this way one reason –among many others- behind Sarkozy’s record in terms of satisfaction rating (only of 29% according to the latest IFOP opinion poll in date of October 24th 2010).

PART 3: Beyond Bonapartism: Sarkozy’s own contribution in shaping a new political communication in France

A 21st century political communication

The theoretical framework under which Sarkozy’s political communication will be studied is the one defined by Johnston in 1990 and according to which a purposeful communication of politics encompasses four categories: election communication, political communication and the news, political rhetoric, and finally political attitudes and behavior (Sanders, 2009).

Omnipresence in the media

From the latter, it is interesting to cite the parallel established by the Italian political analyst, Donatella Campus, between Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, since she identified a four-steps strategy common to their respective approach of the media and the reinforcing of their image, made of: “building an appealing image, establishing a direct and emotional link, creating media events, and going personal” (Campus, 2010).

At this level, two main purposes are targetted, both the mediatization and the personalization of politics. The transalpine political spectacle introduced by Berlusconi in the Italian media relies heavily upon a top-heavy occupation of its space, and notably the TV channels, to generate a top brand-recognition phenomenon within the population.

Sarkozy as well constructed its political leadership upon “an intensive and long-term investment in setting the news agenda and becoming a political celebrity” as stated by Campus and Ventura (2009).

Sarkozy is therefore in complete rupture with the French presidential tradition which consisted in limited media appareances and the practical inexistence of modern communication techniques (under the Chirac presidency for example, it would have been unconceivable to send phone texts or emails to the UMP members database).

A storytelling technique based on personal exhibitionism

At this point, the over-occupation of the mediatic space is not enough, Sarkozy accentuated even more his force de frappe via the Anglo-Saxon technique of “riding the wave”, since he “always coordinated his public statements and political decisions with external events to benefit from the coverage attracted by the newsworthy events” (Campus, 2010). From the latter, hyperactive politics as practiced by the French president serves the mediatic omnipresence sakes. In parallel, the reliance on political myths, and for instance the “French tradition of heroic, decisive, and strong leaders” (Campus, 2010) reinforces even further the storytelling image of the “TéléPrésident”.

On the personalization chapter, the contemporary trend of politics previously mentioned in chapter I – the rise of personalization and the decline of party identification -, is served by a never-seen before peoplization of politicians in the media. In addition, and viewed from a populist lens, desacralizing the leaders via the (over) exposure of their private lives in the media, is a convenient and effective tool in provoking the voters’ identification phenomenon. In fewer words, shaping a political leadership on human traits (that is exposing the politicians’ daily lives, holidays, or personal problems) is a winning recipe in catching the attention and making the “buzz”.

This petite revolution in France’s usual “remote, condescending, and monarchical governing style” is embodied by Sarkozy’s perpetual “show of luxury vacations, millionaires' yachts and private jets, jogging shorts and worn jeans, fancy sunglasses and fancier wristwatches, a sudden divorce followed by a quick, furtive marriage to a trophy wife of disconcerting background” (Harriss, 2008). This flow of mediated exhibitionism crossed a line during what The Economist called the “Act two of The Hyper-president’s Spectacle” in which “Sarkozy decided to allow the camera in his intimacy, for one Paris Match shoot in his Elysee Palace bedroom” (2007).

At this regard, an interesting study conducted by Kuhn about “The Public and the Private in contemporary French politics” determined four main areas of contention for the personalization of politics, and primarily: money, health, sex and sentimental intimacy, and finally family values (Kuhn, 2007). Sarkozy used (and continues to use) them all, sometimes simultaneously in his public display process. For instance, and since day 1 of his presidency, he systematically invited journalists to cover his Sundays’ joggings and sport activities in a purposeful gesture supporting a “key aspect of his political image as a dynamic man of action” (Kuhn, 2007), but also as a way of being covered by the news shows during weekends (a traditionally empty niche for politicians). On the sentimental intimacy, Sarkozy’s over-covered marital problems with Cecilia, his romance with the Italian top-model Carla, and more recently the supposedly extra-marital adventures the press alleged to him, reveal a showbiz approach vis a vis the media, and outline his evolution “into a P. Diddy of the political world” (Harriss, 2008). On the money chapter, the previously mentioned magnanimous relationship toward money (his salary raise) coupled to a continuous display of luxury, place Sarkozy in the people’ section of the glossy paper’s media. Finally, and on the mediated show of family values, Kuhn pointed them out as a recurrent thematic of the Sarkozy’s personalization approach, via citing the “mobilization of his young son, Louis, in the effort to help his father’s presidential ambitions through an appearance on a video footage (‘Bonne chance mon papa’) at a UMP rally in November 2004 which marked Sarkozy’s takeover of the party leadership” (Kuhn, 2007).

The shaping of a mediated political leadership

This incessant and continuously reinvented presidential staging appears, after a mid-career retrospect, as a way of replacing the politics of action by the politics of communication. Such a strategy, labeled by Le Figaro as a “privatization of the public sphere” (2009), is a technique of pushing the media saturation to its extreme: Sarkozy being everywhere, and every time a French citizen turns on his radio, television, or connects to the internet induces the misleading conception of a dynamic of political action, that is in fact more a communicational shaping of political leadership.

At this regard, Cohen predicted since 2006 the mediated characteristic of an eventual Sarkozy presidency since he followed him for more than a decade and analyzed his political communication with the TNS/Media Intelligence UBM (Unité de Bruit Médiatique), an index evaluating the media impact of politicians. Accordingly, Cohen explains that “a monthly average of 200 UBM being a very good score, what about Sarkozy’s UBM of 2587 realized in September 2005? He is a mediaholic animal” (2006).

Another specialist of the French media life, Olivier Duhamel, analyzed Sarkozy’s media coverage, and compared four top-audience magazines – L’Express, Marianne, Le Nouvel Observateur, and Le Point -. He ended up with 80 cover stories dedicated to the president between 2008-2009 (1/5 in term of coverage ratio); “it represents an absolute record in the history of French presidentialism” (Duhamel, 2010). In a country where 97% of the population read at least one of the 171 national magazines per year according to the AEPM’s (Audience de la Presse Magazine) study conducted by the Presse Magazine Institute the exposure to Sarkozy is almost unavoidable (Saint-Joanis, 2009).

At this point, an outburst of media indigestion appeared. Harriss mentions an interesting anecdote at this regard: an association of “citizens suffering from SarkoFatigue” is militating for the creation of an official “Non-Sarkozy Day, during which no story about him would be published” (2008).

Another noticeable feature of Sarkozy’s political communication resides in his personal style, or what Johnson would label as “political rhetoric” (Sanders, 2009). At this regard, Sarkozy combines adroitly his academically acquired lawyer rhetoric with a linguistic frankness. It is as if the president combined the two definitions Napoleon III provided of the “eloquence” and “frankness” words. In fact, and as quoted by D’Alembert in his Dictionnaire politique Napoléonien, the emperor defined eloquence (of lawyers) as the “expression of a true feeling, of a fair idea, stripped of the luxury and ostentation of words” and frankness as the “avoidance by politicians of subterfuges to bring the greatest clarity in their approach” (1849). On this point, and even before running for the presidency, the Sarkozy ministerial speechifying was remarkably different from his fellow ministers’ one: his direct, and sometimes rude, style was purposefully within the reach of the average French citizen.

Bénilde analyzed in 2006 his oratory dexterity and identified three recurring patterns: first an “emphatic appeal to interrogative forms and anaphora” (« Parce que vous croyez que... »), then “the use of stunning effects via images” (« On ne peut pas violer impunément une adolescente dans une cave »), and finally a “posture of the “parler vrai” and popular” (« Moi, j’essaye d’être compris des gens »). Accordingly, the use of a simple and talkative vocabulary coupled to a drama-like storytelling served by multiple repetitions creates an emotional connection able of, first, drawing the attention and second, keeping it all speech long. Jean Véronis, a linguistic specialist, examined 130 speeches of the head of state in his book Les Mots de Nicolas Sarkozy and noted that he simply recycled “commonly used techniques thought in any good communication school” (Gillet, 2008). Such techniques involve first a perfect flexibility vis a vis the audience’s linguistic expectations, then the putting in of a contact with the assistance (via notably direct harangues), and finally the content’s appropriation to wrap it with rhetoric sincerity, this latter being embodied by Sarkozy by “an extreme personalization of power – ‘Je ne vous mentirai pas‘” (Gillet, 2008).

Revolution of the French presidential protocol

However, such a well studied public relation technique is not infallible: and especially since Sarkozy, as he usually does in other domains, pushes his stratagems beyond their limits because of his uncompromising temper. The end result is a political caricature at the opposite of the expected outcome.

For instance, the president pushed his “parler vrai” beyond presidential limits of the French etiquette when he turned out literally insulting a French citizen. As explained by Marquand “Buzz off, you idiot – is a charitable translation of what he said to a man in the crowd who refused to shake his hands” (2008). This incident that occurred in the Agriculture Salon of Paris in February 2008 echoed with a muscular verbal exchange with a fisherman of Guilvinec in November 2007, and even before while he treated one of his collaborators (David Martinon) of “imbecile” (idiot/fool) in front of CBS’s cameras in October 2007 during the recording of the 60 minutes program. The president verbal impulsiveness engendered a wave of consternation and exasperation throughout the country. “Can he incarnate France with dignity and legitimacy?” wondered Dominique Moisi, a senior advisor at the French Institute for International Relations (Harriss, 2008).


Actually, this interrogation was premonitory since the worst was yet to come in terms of discourtesy and public disrespect, this time vis a vis foreign leaders. As reported by Slate Magazine, a particularly epic diner held by the French head of state at the Elysee the 17th of April 2009 in honor of French deputies was marked by a barely-believable medley of cutting remarks. Accordingly, Barack Obama “was elected since two months and never managed a ministry in his life: there are numerous issues on which he has no position”; José Manuel Barroso (the president of the European Commission) was “completely absent from the G20”; Angela Merkel “rallied my (Sarkozy’s) position once she acknowledged the damages inflicted to her banking and car industries”; and finally José Louis Zapatero is “not very intelligent” (2007). Consequently, a clamor of indignation popped up throughout the international press, and mainly the British, Spanish, and German one as reported by Marquand (2008) and made the French one wonder “how such a politician, whose strength is public relations, can make so many damaging and inexplicable miscalculations”. By trying to do too much in his no-inhibitions approach, Sarkozy pushed his system on its knees and put France in an uncomfortable and embarrassing position vis a vis its foreign partners.

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