News and democracy in France

France is a free and democratic country.  The French can come and go as they please, for example.  They elect their rulers much as we do.  They can hire on or quit their jobs, and spend the money they make on more than just baguettes and Peugeots.

Yet French politics have become progressively less democratic, and the French people less free.  The country appears headed for the moral and political equivalent of a nursing home:  a sad, humiliating prelude to the tomb.

Meanwhile, French newspapers, as this Guardian article makes clear, are massively subsidized by the government, but go largely unread.  So let’s pose the question:  can a link be found between the decline of French democracy and the condition of the French news media?

The strange degradation of democracy in France has been a matter of choice.  The people crave stability, and fear change.  French students led the bloody Commune uprising of 1848.  A century and a half later, they took to the streets to demand lifetime jobs.  The European Constitution, a statist straightjacket of minute rules and regulations, went down in defeat because the French considered it a Trojan horse for cowboy capitalism.

Freedom is a moral condition.  The individual must seize ownership over his sovereignty, and rise or fall accordingly.  The French wish to suspend the laws of moral gravity:  they expect never to fall.  They put on the trappings of freedom, but demand a happy ending without exception.  This specific type of moral failure was predicted long ago by De Tocqueville.  Citizens, he wrote, “console themselves for being under schoolmasters by thinking that they have chosen them themselves.”

The government of France is a schoolmaster to its people.  It exists primarily to block change and sanctify the status quo, but it must also maintain the illusion of democratic choice.  Both goals lead directly to a deep government involvement in the news business.

The French elites, like our own articulate classes, take it as an article of faith that the good citizen must be fed a steady diet of news.  I hope to examine this curious belief in a later post.  The gist of it is the idea that each citizen must know every detail of all the policy and technical questions facing the country.  Otherwise, his opinions will flounder in error, and his errors, aggregated in the electorate, will lead the country astray.

The French state, a zealous schoolmaster, has decided that the people must have news.  Further, it has mandated that every kiosk must sell the full spectrum of political persuasion, from old-time Communist to old-time Gaullist:  Humanite to Figaro.  This bullying of small businesses is done on behalf of democracy.  The outward forms of freedom are enforced by reasons of state.

Whether French citizens benefit from exposure to many points of view at every kiosk is an unanswerable question.  Beyond the elites, nobody reads newspapers.  The reasons for this can only be guessed at.  Newpapers in France are written by and for the elites, in a language that puts less exalted minds to sleep.  Topics are esoteric.  Practical information is hard to find.  Culture trumps entertainment, and government ministers tower like Homeric gods above the landscape.  Editions are expensive but skimpy.

Hence the subsidies.  If the people won’t buy directly what is good for them, the government will make sure they do so indirectly, by spending their tax euros.  The French political landscape thus becomes littered with inexplicable relationships.  A Gaullist government pays the bills for a newspaper advocating the revolutionary overthrow of the regime — and French revolutionaries must look to the government, with gratitude one presumes, for their bread and butter.

The contradictions are only apparent.  Party politics in France is a mere alternation among elites seeking to freeze in place the present moment.  The Gaullists are no more traditionalists or right-wing than the Communists are revolutionary.  All are profoundly conservative — nostalgists, really, struggling to preserve a France that no longer exists.  All have made a Faustian bargain to immobilize society:  “Oh tarry yet, thou art so fair!”

A Gaullist government subsidizes a Communist newspaper because the state is a universal schoolmaster, not the bearer of a specific ideology or set of policies.  All important matters have been settled, putatively forever.  Politics get conducted on the meaningless margins of life.  No matter how diverse the opinions represented in every kiosk, political action in France flows from a single principle:  “Oh tarry yet, thou art so fair!”

Nothing human tarries.  Despite $3 billion in state subsidies, French newspapers are flat-lining.  The economic crisis hasn’t helped, but the fundamental problem is loss of readership, particularly among the young.  French people, on the whole, don’t care to read newspapers.

What’s a wise schoolmaster to do?  A government “reform” to save the status quo for the press:  in plain language, more subsidies.  Even for France, the spectacle of President Sarkozy — a man who has spent his entire life in government — lecturing the news media on how to manage the news media business, appears comically bizarre.

Sarkozy recently organised a general meeting for the press to share his vision of what the papers should do and issue a pronouncement. This much-vaunted reform essentially consists of giving the established daily newspapers more subsidies in the years to come — which could only have the effect of postponing their collapse. He has, for instance, announced an increase in presidential advertising in the press and has granted papers certain tax exemptions. The rather more dramatic move to give every 18-year-old in the country a one-year subscription to a daily paper (to encourage them to appreciate the press) is perhaps the only measure that might have a longer term effect.

Now, why didn’t the horse-and-buggy industry think of this trick?  If every young person had been given a free buggy back in 1900, the automobile would never have taken hold.

The subsidies are moral, not business, decisions.  French elites consider the demise of newspapers an evil development — a harbinger of the fact that the fair moment no longer tarries.  The show of democracy will lapse into silence.  Reality will reveal itself to the elites and the people alike in all its nursing-home ugliness.  Fear and loathing will drive the electorate.  Things will fall apart.

If this moral vision is accurate, then the predicted disasters will come to pass.  An additional billion dollars won’t save French newspapers, when the news-for-money business globally is on life support and waiting dully for the plug to be pulled.  Our question, however, did not concern the future of France but rather the relation of news to democracy.

A few tentative answers can be put forward.

News is an elite game.  The idea of placing a mediator between information and the public is inherently undemocratic.  Such mediators will have more in common with the wealthy, powerful people they “cover” than with the electorate.  The topics they select for “coverage,” and the narrative they impose on events, will be self-interested and elite-driven.  To expect otherwise is to deny human nature.

The undemocratic basis of news is visible to the naked eye in France, a nation that, more than any other, allows its elites to celebrate themselves.  But it’s inherent to the business.  It was plain to see in the US during the presidential election, when Sarah Palin, an outsider in tastes and style if ever there was one, inspired torrents of enraged “coverage.”

The involvement of the government makes an undemocratic business part of an anti-democratic maneuver.  The problem is no longer elites selecting topics but power imposing its will.  Democracy, to elites, is a dangerous system.  Only when properly educated by the elites themselves can an electorate be trusted to choose wisely.  Once people leave school, the news are the only way for the elites to communicate down to the masses.

From this perspective, it makes perfect sense to abrogate democracy in order to preserve it.  If the people are trusted to obtain information on their own, and make their decisions based on this information, how can the elites be certain to keep their jobs as schoolmasters?  And without schoolmasters, won’t the electorate-children run wild in the streets?



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