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Last Thursday, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced an array of reforms including $5.5bn-worth of tax cuts for those on lower and middle incomes.
The gesture, made during a specially convened live address from the Elysee Palace, was the latest attempt by the president to assuage the “gilets jaunes”, “yellow vest” protesters, who first hit the streets almost six months ago, demonstrating over the price of fuel, the cost of living and tax fairness.
Macron had initially tried to appease the movement back in December last year by boosting the minimum wage.
Fast-forward five months to the fire that consumed part of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and, with the ‘yellow vests’ still turning out every Saturday in the tens of thousands, Macron’s role leading the fundraising efforts for its reconstruction ended up playing right into their hands. The multimillion-dollar donations from billionaires, which happen to be tax deductible, underlined the issues of tax inequality and government priorities.
France’s media have, since the beginning, been much more than a sub-plot in this story. Widespread among “yellow vests” has been that the coverage – while pouring over incidents of protester violence against police and private property – have under-reported incidents of police violence. The scale and severity of injuries inflicted by the French constabulary have indeed come as a shock to many observers.
The use of rubber bullets – dubbed “flash balls” by the protesters – have caused hundreds of serious injuries, with several protesters reporting hands being blown off and more than 20 lost an eye.
In addition to protests being held outside the offices of major media houses like Agence France Presse and the private channel, BFMTV, some journalists covering the protests have also been physically attacked by protesters.
“The protesters’ anger towards the media is understandable,” explains Edwy Plenel, editor-in-chief of the website MediaPart. “But it cannot justify violence, or hatred of all media becomes this ends up being a hatred of democracy … Of course, there was a strong grievance when the ‘yellow vests’ movement began, that the media was not reporting their side of the story, most notably with regard to police violence.”
But the contempt the “yellow vests” hold for the media, if not its manifestation in physical violence, is by no means limited to the movement. This past January, seven weeks into the protests, La Croix, a national, Catholic newspaper, conducted a poll. When asked whether their journalists were independent – able to resist pressure brought by political parties, 69 percent of respondents said “no”.
It’s a situation that Jean-Jerome Bertolus, political editor at the radio station France Info, recognises: “Today, journalism is a profession that stands discredited by the ‘yellow vests’ and wider French society. Here at France Info we are lucky enough to have great proximity to the parts of France that accuse journalists of only covering Paris and the middle and upper classes – and of forgetting those sections of society that feel disowned and invisible.”
As for the “yellow vests”, they have increasingly turned towards alternative forms of media. The demonstrations are routinely live-streamed by the “yellow vests” themselves, as well as by video publishers like Brut and Taranis News – who’ve racked up millions of views by providing the kind of immediate, accessible and relatively unmediated coverage that appeals to the “yellow vests” and their sympathisers.
Macron’s latest concessions to the “yellow vests” were the culmination of his Grand National Debate – a national policy debate launched in recognition of what he termed their “legitimate” demands. Another debate they have provoked – and have expressed in ways both fair and foul – is concern about the role played by the media in French society.
Whatever one’s view on their answers, there’s little doubt that questions about media ownership, how journalists cover protests, why the levels of trust in French media are so low are more visible than ever due to the “yellow vests”.
Edwy Plenel – Editor-in-chief, Mediapart
Anne Saurat Dubois – Political correspondent, BFM TV
Fabrice Epelboin – Media scholar, Sciences Po Paris
Xenia Fedorova – Editor-in-chief, RT France
Jean-Jerome Bertolus – Political editor, France Info
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