Philippe Bouquillion and Bruno Lefèvre
Without being in an oligopolistic situation, the news media market in France is experiencing a significant level of concentration, which has tended to increase in recent years, particularly through acquisitions by powerful players whose main activities are generally unrelated to the news media and often even to the cultural and creative industries. Indeed, the dynamics of concentration in the French news media are essentially driven by these diversified players, especially Vivendi and Vincent Bolloré and his family, particularly since the takeover of a former major player in the French media, Lagardère, but also Bernard Arnault and his family and Patrick Drahi and his company, Altice.
These industrial players often tend to operate in different types of news media in a trans-media logic by combining activities in at least two of these areas: television, radio, newspapers, each with an online version.
The major media owners in this sampleare as follows:
Vivendi, which is mainly active in broadcasting, book publishing and advertising, and is itself controlled by the Bolloré group, which is an industrial and financial player with highly diversified positions (particularly in transport and logistics).
Altice, which is a transnational player active mainly in telecommunications.
The Bouygues Group, which apart from its activities in the audiovisual media (including France’s main advertising-funded channel, TF1) is positioned in construction and public works as well as telecommunications.
UFIPAR, which is the holding company for the media and property activities of the luxury goods group Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, which is itself controlled in a complex manner by Bernard Arnault and his family. Bernard Arnault is the world’s first or second richest man, depending on the trend in LVMH’s share price.
Dassault Médias, which is controlled by the Marcel Dassault industrial group, whose main activities are in civil and military aviation and high technology, and which is also controlled by the Dassault family.
Artémis, which is the holding company of François Pinault and his family, whose activities are concentrated in the luxury goods sector.
On the scale of our sample, these shareholders own some of the largest and most reputable news media in the national daily political press, including Le Figaro (the leading right-wing daily) and Libération (the leading left-wing daily), as well as Le Parisien and Le Journal du Dimanche. They may also own major magazines such as the famous right-wing weekly Le Point or the influential celebrity magazines Paris Match and Gala, or major women’s magazines such as Femme Actuelle. They own the two biggest permanent news channels, BFM TV and CNews, as well as one of France’s two leading business and financial daily newspapers, Les Echos.
Among these owners of news media whose main activity lies in other economic spheres is a singular figure in French capitalism, Xavier Niel, whose company, Free, is one of France’s leading players in Internet access and telecommunications. All his media assets have been brought together in a holding company separate from Free, NJJ Presse. Although it only appears in the panel as one of the main shareholders of the newspaper Le Monde, NJJ Presse owns a number of other media outlets outside our sample.
Alongside these major industrial and financial players are players whose activities are mainly rooted in the news media and whose media activities are more stable than those of the players presented below, whose centre of gravity is outside the news media. These players specialising in the news media are generally families that have been active for decades in a very specific segment of the news media. These players are hardly conducive to a cross-media dynamic of concentration; rather, they tend to position themselves in just one type of media, and especially in the regional and specialist print media.
Among the media outlets in the sample are companies in the regional daily press, especially Rossel & Cie, which owns major news media in Belgium and France, in particular La Voix du Nord, the leading daily in northern France. In the shareholding of La Voix du Nord, Rossel & Cie is associated with a major French mutual bank, Crédit Agricole, which is organised on a regional basis. The Hutin family controls France’s largest regional daily press group, Groupe Sipa Ouest France, via a foundation. These two major players, Groupe Sipa Ouest France and Rossel & Cie, are also the two shareholders in France’s leading free newspaper, 20 Minutes.
These owners specialising in news media may also be present in the sports press, like Groupe Amaury, a group owned by the Amaury family, which owns France’s biggest sports daily, l’Equipe.
Other media owners escape market capitalism. These are mainly the public television and radio media, which are very important in terms of audience figures and symbolic capital, but also in terms of the amount of public spending devoted to them. They are all owned by the central government, although some have so-called regional or local channels with specific programmes for very specific geographical areas. Alongside these public media are rare examples of private media owned by their readers or ‘friends companies’, whose mode of ownership aims to avoid dependence on commercial or public shareholders and advertising. Mediapart, a media outlet included in the sample, is the main example of this situation.
Finally, foreign ownership is present in France in a variety of ways, as illustrated by the outlets in the sample. It may involve industrial shareholding of players whose activity is centred not only on the news media but also on the cultural industries in the broad sense. RTL Group S.A. is the main example, with the popular radio station RTL. Foreign shareholding can also be financial and political, with the Sovereign Wealth Fund of the State of Qatar playing an important role within Lagardère, notably at the request of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. This fund has played an important role in the successful takeover of Lagardère by Vivendi. A very special foreign shareholder is Czech Media Invest a. s., Daniel Křetínský’s holding company. Křetínský appears among owners of media from the analysed sample through his shareholding in Le Monde, the most famous and influential French daily for political news. He has other shareholdings and controls significant media not mentioned in the sample, including the weekly Marianne, an important title in national political news in France. Over the last few years, Daniel Křetínský has become a major player in French capitalism, both inside and outside the news media.
It is relatively easy for an ordinary citizen to identify which organisation or individuals control the media. This information is available on websites dedicated to monitoring media ownership and even on Wikipedia. However, this information is usually fairly approximate and not always up to date. The exact chain of companies between the media outlet and the ultimate owner(s) is rarely identifiable without recourse to paid sources or, in the case of groups quoted on the stock exchange, to annual reports. Even these sources do not provide totally accurate information. The precise breakdown of shares and voting rights is not always known, and the different sources may give slightly divergent information. Similarly, some industrial groups, including those controlled by Bernard Arnault (LVMH) and Patrick Drahi (Altice), have highly complex ownership structures with holding companies based in Luxembourg or Belgium for tax optimisation purposes. In addition, the breakdown of shares held by each individual within family holding companies is unknown. Therefore, it can be difficult to identify the main holder when the latter has died and when there are many heirs (as in the case of the Dassault family, for example). The lack of precise information on holdings is one of the main problems in France from the point of view of transparency of media ownership.
Another problem appears in three of the cases in the sample. Le Monde, Libération and Ouest-France, three printed newspapers, are controlled by structures that conceal the economic control exercised by individuals or families (Xavier Niel and Patrick Drahi and the Hutin family respectively). If mechanisms supposed to prevent editorial intervention by owners are in place, does this mean that owners no longer play any role? On the other hand, we may consider that the financial support the owners give to the newspapers in the event of losses still gives them an influence, albeit indirect, on the editorial line. In this context, assumingly, the editor-in-chief and his team have to take into account the owner point of view, even non explicit or not publicly expressed.
In addition, information is still lacking on certain types of public funding. The direct aid received by the holding companies that own the media is public. It is very significant in France and essential to the survival of the general political information press. From a strictly legal point of view, there is no obligation to disclose public funding, but as stated on the government website where subsidies are disclosed: “In the interests of transparency, the Ministry of Culture publishes the list of titles and, from 2016, of the main press groups, which have received direct and indirect subsidies”. On the other hand, the sums received for each media outlet are not necessarily made public, nor is the indirect expenditure (loss of revenue tax) represented by the many tax exemptions and subsidies received by the news media. Public advertising expenditure is not disclosed either.
Similarly, financial information on media outlets can be very incomplete (turnover and profits unknown), making it difficult to assess their economic situation.
Finally, the risks relate to the possibility of owners having a covert or notorious influence on editorial choices. While there are many safeguards in place (owners’ non-participation in editorial meetings, conscience clauses for journalists, charters of journalistic ethics and media independence, etc.), journalists have little legal protection from owners. From a legislative point of view, the owners of the media can appoint the editor-in-chief and, in so doing, influence the editorial line. Journalists cannot oppose this except in a very small number of media which have adopted special statutes, such as Le Monde or Mediapart.
Similarly, the political authorities (government and parliament) retain a certain amount of power in appointing the members of the boards of the public media. The chairpersons of the boards of France Télévisions and Radio France are appointed by the regulatory authority for audiovisual and digital communication ARCOM. However, seven members of the France Télévisions board are appointed by politicians, five by ARCOM and two members represent staff. At Radio France, six board members are appointed by politicians, four by ARCOM and two members represent staff.
Apart from a few exceptions (the newspaper Le Monde, for example), there are no press rooms in France. The influence of owners on legal disclosure is becoming increasingly apparent and is becoming a major issue in the public debate on freedom of information, particularly following the rise of the Bolloré group in the French news media. These developments in the media industry may be aimed either at defending the owners’ economic interests outside the press as well as promoting their political or religious ideas. Although very few media owners in France (including their family members) hold elected office or political party membership cards, their opinions are often well known and publicised, while their personal relationships with leading politicians are also publicised or even deliberately staged. Editorial managers or ordinary journalists who do not comply with the owners’ injunctions can easily be dismissed.
In France, we are seeing a decline in people’s interest in information and a loss of confidence. In this context, according to the Digital News Report, in 2023, television would be the main mean of accessing news (used by 64% of French people). However, its influence has been eroding over the past 10 years, since it was used by 84% of the population in 2013. While all online news access methods play an important role, as the second most popular ways of accessing news in France, their role is also diminishing, with 60% of the population using online media for information in 2023, compared with 68% in 2013. Social networks are in fact the only source of access to news that has increased over the last 10 years. While their importance was not measured in 2013 by the authors of the Digital News Report, in 2023, 34% of the French population consider them to be a source of information.
Over the past 10 years, print newspapers have lost considerable influence. While print newspapers represented a source of information for 46% of the population in 2013, by 2023 this figure will have fallen to just 15%. Numerous large-scale public subsidies are not hindering this development, which is part of a long-term historical trend. French press groups have been under-capitalised since the end of the Second World War, and over time they have not been able to cope with the ‘new’ media that have followed.
Two major players currently share the French market, Meta and its various social networks, and Alphabet. 36% of the population use Facebook for news, according to the 2021 Digital News Report for France, 16% Instagram, 15% WhatsApp and 14% Messenger. It is more difficult to assess the importance of Alphabet’s services. According to the Digital News Report, 23% of the French population regard YouTube as a source of information, but Google Search’s market share of news access is not known. Nevertheless, Google’s share of the French search engine market is 91.7%. We can assume that Google Search is a significant mean of accessing news in France.
A more recent entrant, TikTok, is experiencing extremely strong growth and is becoming a major player in news access for the youngest members of the French population – 15% of 18-24 year olds use TikTok to access news.
The stranglehold of two companies therefore poses a serious problem of concentration. A duopoly has emerged, challenged only by TikTok. Admittedly, the French media players have concluded agreements between Meta and Alphabet, notably on revenue sharing. The most recent version of these agreements, which are more restrictive for the two tech giants, were imposed by decisions of the French Competition Authority, which fined Google 500 million dollars in 2019.
Relevant intermediaries in France either provide no information or disclose general criteria on pages that cannot be reached from the content area. Online news curation methods are therefore largely unknown. Indeed, at the time of writing, France has no legal provisions establishing exposure rules in algorithmic services except for audiovisual content unrelated to news (especially for low budget films).
Admittedly, numerous official reports and ARCOM opinions recommend implementing the provisions prescribed by the DSA and DMA. For the time being, however, there are only timid measures relating to handling ‘illegal’ content and ‘fake news’. Platforms must describe “the procedures and the human or automated means employed for this purpose as well as the measures they implement affecting the availability, visibility and accessibility of such content” (article 42 of the Act of 24 August 2021 amending article 6.4.3 of the 2004 Act). However, the declarations rely on the goodwill of the platforms. Similarly, though some intermediaries inform that paid content might get prioritised, they do not promise to disclose the existence of commercial agreements
Since 2018, ARCOM has responsibilities for curating online content. However, ARCOM does not yet have the legal means to compel platform operators to disclose information. Likewise, ARCOM does not yet have the means to impose sanctions. A report on the fight against the manipulation of information on online platforms has been published annually by ARCOM since 2018. In it, ARCOM highlights in particular the lack of information disclosed by platforms about how their algorithms work.
Media ownership has been a hotly debated issue in France, particularly since the establishment of the Republic against attempts at monarchical restoration at the end of the 19th century. The law of 1881 included provisions relating to the transparency of media ownership. This law also affirmed the principle of freedom of the press and freedom to inform. Even today, it is one of the main legal foundations of the news media. Nowadays, the debates focus on the defence of pluralism and on the hidden links between industrial groups and political powers, particularly industrial groups active in public procurement. In fact, many media outlets are owned and controlled by shareholders whose main activity is outside the news media or even the cultural industries.
In the contemporary period, the main law dealing with concentration in the media is the Law of 30 September 1986 on freedom of communication. This law sets concentration thresholds per market and thresholds for the presence of the same player in different markets (press, TV, radio and national/regional). This law replaced two previous laws. The first was the Ordinance of 26 August 1944 on the organisation of the French press. Prepared as part of the Resistance, its main aim was to remove from press ownership those individuals and socio-economic players who had collaborated with the occupying forces or supported the Vichy regime. The second piece of legislation replaced by the 1986 Act is the Act of 23 October 1984 aimed at limiting concentration and ensuring the financial transparency and pluralism of press companies. It was adopted by a left-wing government in order to limit the influence of the leading press magnate of the day, Robert Hersant, who was very close to the right-wing opposition. The Act of 30 September 1986 has, in part, a different approach, combining political and economic concerns. The concentration thresholds were clearly raised in order to allow the creation of more powerful industrial media players (in a trans-media logic). At the same time, the higher thresholds favoured industrial groups close to the right-wing government that came to power in 1986. These thresholds have remained unchanged since 1986. The rules on concentration in the news media are based on both quantitative indicators (concentration thresholds) and qualitative indicators, taking into account the objectives of respect for pluralism of information. Pluralism is a constitutional principle. Article 34 of the Constitution even states that “the law lays down the rules relating to the freedom, pluralism and independence of the media”.
Media ownership transparency is today mainly regulated by the “law of 1 August 1986 reforming the system of press companies”. This law has been heavily criticised.
Firstly, critics point out that the various types of media do not have the same obligations. Audiovisual media (TV and radio) must disclose information to the audiovisual regulatory authority (ARCOM). The strongest provision is that of the press: (print and online) “Each year, the publishing company must inform the readers or Internet users of the publication or online press service of all the information relating to the composition of its capital, in the event that any natural person or legal entity holds a fraction of the capital equal to or greater than 5%, and of its management bodies. It shall mention the identity and shareholding of each shareholder, whether a natural person or a legal entity” (art. 6.4 of the law of 1 August 1986 amended by art. 33 of the law of 14 November 2016). Online distributors (gatekeepers) are not subject to these disclosure obligations. These gatekeepers, especially the two most active in France, Meta and Alphabet, are obviously much larger than the French news media players, have very high market shares and considerable market power. This relative asymmetry in the positions of the two types of players is of course always put forward by the French media players to justify merger operations.
Secondly, supervision by independent regulatory authorities is complex and incomplete. No national sectoral regulatory authority is responsible for monitoring the situation of the press. Only the French Competition Authority can take action in the event of non-compliance with competition rules in the print media. Only television and radio are subject to supervision of ownership rules by a national sectoral regulatory authority. This supervision is in addition to that exercised by the Competition Authority.
Thirdly, except in the case of the press, citizens are excluded from this mechanism. There is no explicit provision for citizens to request this information. Neither ARCOM nor print and electronic media distribution regulatory authority ARCEP divulges information to the public in the name of respect for industrial secrecy. In other words, the information disclosed is only done so either by the goodwill of the players concerned or because of their obligations to disclose information when they are listed on the stock exchange.
 Cf. Ministry of Culture: https://www.culture.gouv.fr/Thematiques/Presse-ecrite/Tableaux-des-titres-et-groupes-de-presse-aides-par-le-ministere-de-la-Culture/Tableau-des-titres-de-presse-aides-en-2021
 See ARCOM: https://www.arcom.fr/sites/default/files/2022-12/Lutte%20contre%20la%20manipulation%20de%20l%27information%20sur%20les%20plateformes%20en%20ligne%20-%20Bilan%20des%20mesures%202022%20-%20r%C3%A9vis%C3%A9%20le%201er%20d%C3%A9cembre_0.pdf
Country report published in September 2023