How the French Media Turned Emmanuel Macron Into a Presidential Candidate
A sociologist explains what he thinks French media has to gain if the centrist candidate wins.
A version of this article originally appeared on VICE France
In the run-up to the French presidential elections, many French voters on social media, like their American counterparts, have not been particularly kind about their mainstream media. Terms like "Merdias" (blending "media" with "merde", meaning shit) and "journalopes" (blending journalists with "salope", meaning slut or bitch) have become relatively common when the French discuss their press online. Why all the hate? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that in the period before the elections the media granted centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron of the En Marche! movement significantly more airtime and cover-story profiles than other candidates.
So just before the second round of the presidential elections this Sunday—when either Macron or far-right candidate Marine Le Pen will be elected president—I wanted to talk about how the French press framed Macron with sociologist Alain Accardo. Accardo is a senior lecturer at Bordeaux 3 University, and his writings focus on journalism and the system in which the mainstream media operate.
Accardo argues that media organizations are part of the capitalist system and therefore have an interest in keeping that system in place. "Journalists working for those media are uniform middle-class types," he says, "and what they write about serves only the interests of their own social group." Accardo doesn't think journalists are puppets to wealthy shareholders, nor does he think they're plotting to spread misinformation or fake news. He does, however, believe they all share the same background, have the same perspective, and profit from the status quo in the same way. He argues that that's illustrated in the way the French press uniformly reported on "the phenomenon of Macron."
VICE: During the campaign, Emmanuel Macron was widely covered by the French press. Do you think the media are responsible for the fact that Macron was virtually unknown three years ago and is now a presidential candidate?
Alain Accardo: Yes, I think they've played a decisive role in establishing Macron as a credible candidate, the one who could "bring people together beyond the traditional party divide", as you'd read a lot. His own ambition led him on that path. Since he's relatively new to the field of professional politics, he didn't have the same political capital as his competitors. But instead of working his way further up the traditional central left or right party ladder, he took a risk and entered the competition as an independent competitor, with the En Marche! movement. That gave him an air of being fresh, being "neither right nor left" – which, truthfully, isn't all that revolutionary in the modern French political climate. But the narrative stands.
In the past, an independent candidate would quickly be wiped out by more experienced and better-known candidates from the traditional ruling parties – the conservatives and the socialists. But that's not what happened with Macron – he benefited from the fact that the candidates of Les Républicains [François Fillon] and the Parti Socialiste [Benoît Hamon] were deeply unpopular. [Fillon came under investigation for hiring his wife as a parliamentary assistant – an allegedly "fake job" for which she was paid an exorbitant amount of money. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party grew increasingly unpopular due to current president François Hollande's policies and his inability to tackle terrorism]. Because his opponent in the second round, Marine Le Pen, is from the extreme right, Macron suddenly seemed a perfect candidate for liberal and conservative forces to "save" the Republic from the National Front's extremist-populist threat.
So with that in mind, all that remained then was for the press to write up that message and rally the crowds for the arrival of France's saviour, Emmanuel Macron.
If the media made him, isn't it weird he made it to the second round – given people's general distrust of the press these days?
I don't think that distrust is deep enough yet. Virtually all major titles in print media, major TV-channels and radio stations are part of larger media groups with capitalist interests. Those companies produce information for the market and at the same time, produce a market for information. They're like any other company that makes cars, perfume or barbecues. A company produces your desire for a barbecue, and then produces the barbecue you desire. If the press is part of that capitalist system, their underlying mission is to keep that system in place.
"Journalists reduce reporting on politics to reporting on political personalities."
But the media has to appear to respect the values on which our Republic and our Constitution are based – democracy and secularism. That's why they'll appear to give way to diverse voices – a far-left candidate like Jean-Luc Mélenchon will get the floor, but in the media narrative he'll be associated with extreme left-wing leaders – like Hugo Chavez, for example. Anti-capitalist candidate Philippe Poutou will be interviewed, but will always be presented as a minor candidate without vision. More traditional candidates who don't threaten the capitalist structure are presented positive or neutrally, without devaluing connotations. Individually, each of those comments or connotations might seem small or irrelevant, but the fact that it's repeated so often in all media creates that narrative around a candidate or their ideas.
Even if that's how media companies work – how do individual journalists contribute to that?
Journalistic titles hire journalists whose social background – socially, culturally, educationally and morally – fits perfectly with what the current capitalist order asks for. People working in media are mostly middle-class types with the same interests, favouring consumerism, hedonism, libertarian individualism and unconditional Europeanism from Brussels. And they're all subject to this form of political illiteracy – they reduce reporting on politics to reporting on political personalities. The journalists and pollsters in the press turn political life into a theatrical stage, where personalities just endlessly talk and debate. All that talk drowns out any serious criticism of the system.
The French people have been indoctrinated that way for decades – we've had more than 30 years of a certain consensus between the centrist powers of the conservative right of Les Républicains and a right that's disguised as socialism by the Parti Socialiste. It's hard to wake up from that, but I think the country is starting to take note. I think the mainstream media and the journalists working in them are now seeing that, and want to save the system they're working in. So it's a natural step for them to promote all candidates who don't really threaten the capitalist order.
Emmanuel Macron was often called the "modern" choice among the candidates in the first round, and in the second round again, now that he's pitted against Marine Le Pen. What do you think of that characterisation?
Like I said, Macron happened to be in the right place at the right time, while candidates of the traditional parties were failing. Someone needed to fill that void, and along came Macron, a young and ambitious supposed outsider, who's still completely and safely part of the system – having gone to the right school and having worked at a bank. The marketing campaign around him gave him the fashionable air of being neither left nor right. There's nothing modern in that – it's just well-tried logic of a well-organised system. It's naive to think that if Macron hadn't been there and then, the establishment would have been pushed aside and lost power. There are hundreds of potential candidates like Macron, formed in our schools and political organisations, ready to take over if necessary – each with a slightly different flavour.
Before the presidential election, the two main parties in France – the conservative Républicains and the centrist-left Parti Socialiste – had primaries to elect their candidates, following the American model. What does that mean for French politics?
Well, it's a further indication that France is politically becoming what it already is culturally – a colony of the United States. Pretty soon, only their spoken language will distinguish a European population from the American population.
The idea of having primaries fits into the political system of the United States, which is characterised by bipartisanship. It seems less appropriate in countries like France, where voters can choose between different political ideologies, and social criticism and political opposition are more radical. Far-left political figures we have in France, like Olivier Besancenot and Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party, or even militant socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, probably wouldn't have very long political careers in the United States.
The translation of this interview was edited and condensed for clarity.