France: the new authoritarian journalism

Western media’s reporting of the war in Gaza makes little pretence of impartiality. In French newsrooms and radio studios, unconditional support for Israel is the norm and part of a wider lurch to the right.

by Serge Halimi & Pierre Rimbert
Deb 2024

A period of media frenzy has revealed, and accelerated, a political shift: in the weeks since the Hamas massacres on 7 October, France’s government and mainstream media have managed a double feat. They have expelled from the ‘republican arc’ (the spectrum of the politically acceptable) the leftwing La France Insoumise (LFI) and simultaneously admitted the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) to the fold. The RN, founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen as the Front National, was once deemed unworthy of being in government by the ruling classes, who frequently called for a united front against it; now suddenly rehabilitated because it allied itself with the stance of the Israeli government, it is no longer beyond the pale.

On CNews-Europe 1, journalist Sonia Mabrouk even praised Marine Le Pen as ‘the rampart, the protection, the shield for French Jews’ (10 October 2023), while Le Figaro (5-6 November) and BFM TV (12 December) respectively presented an admiring portrait of RN president Jordan Bardella and a triumphant news ticker that read, ‘46% of French like the idea of Bardella as prime minister.’ Simultaneously, the centre-left press blasted Jean-Luc Mélenchon in terms once reserved for Jean-Marie Le Pen: he ‘keeps making vile misjudgements’ (L’Obs, 12 October) in the form of statements ‘steeped in antisemitic stereotypes’ (Mediapart, 10 November). On 4 January Le Monde ran a long piece titled ‘Antisemitism: how Jean-Luc Mélenchon cultivates ambiguity’, though it failed to produce anything that qualified as such. For three months, the paper has conducted a lengthy hit job against the LFI leader in half a dozen articles and several editorials.

‘The devil has changed sides’

‘The devil has changed sides,’ Nicolas Beytout wrote in business daily L’Opinion (12 October): ‘Hamas’s attack has redealt the cards. LFI is [now] easier to hate, the Rassemblement National harder to fight.’ In the media, the republican arc has become difficult to distinguish from the Israeli arc. On 12 December France Culture journalist Brice Couturier even revealed in a tweet the grubby desire of a growing part of France’s elite: ‘Since we will have to go through an RN period (as all the polls show), why not do it within the framework of a cohabitation [power-sharing]? As president, Emmanuel Macron could retain control of foreign policy (so no break with the EU and NATO) and dissolve [parliament] at the right moment [for an early election] in 2026.’ (Macron himself cannot stand again for the presidency.)

This rapid lurch to the far right, unimaginable just a decade ago, has coincided with new restrictions on freedom of expression, opinion and demonstration. In step with the interior minister, the media, whether through ideological conviction or intellectual laziness, find antisemitism in ordinary demonstrations in support of the Palestinian cause, which were initially banned. Bernard-Henri Lévy corrected the description to ‘demonstrations in support of terrorists’ (Le Point, 9 November). On LCI, journalist Darius Rochebin, proposed ‘the administrative internment of Islamists’ (15 October). And the culmination came with the immigration bill voted through by the presidential majority, the right and the RN on 19 December: the law, which toughens measures targeted at immigrants and their children, was promoted by the interior ministry as a defence against ‘attacks on the state’s fundamental interests’, ‘terrorist activities’ and incitement to violence – by which it implied incitement by ‘Islamist’ Muslims tempted to carry out antisemitic pogroms.

An earthquake was coming – it had already begun elsewhere in Europe. It’s ironic, though, that in France this authoritarian turn should happen under the joint aegis of a journalistic guild that claims to be the guardian of democratic freedoms and a government elected to hold off the far right. And that both justify their actions by the need to support ‘Israel’s right to self-defence’ at a time when it’s lengthening its list of war crimes in the hope of precipitating the exile or deportation of an entire people and thereby preventing it from ever achieving sovereignty over its territory.

The scale of the slaughter in Gaza, the international condemnation it provokes, and the loss of trust in Western journalism may lead some of those involved to hope their aberration and the resulting damage may be forgotten. All the more reason for a detailed review of the two phases of the information war that began on 7 October: first, the media coverage of Hamas’s massacre, described at length as an unprecedented peak of horror, and then, in restrained, understated terms, of Israel’s all-out war on the Palestinians. For the last few weeks, France has been fed a diet of journalism that hates both genuine debate and freedom of speech.

Two dimensions shape media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, the chronological axis, whose origin point is always the killing of Israelis – in this instance, on 7 October – never the earlier murder of people in the West Bank or Gaza. In 2021, 2022 and the first nine months of 2023 respectively, the IDF killed 349, 291 and 227 Palestinians, but this violence didn’t stir newsrooms to action. On 23 October Acrimed, a media watch group, noted that from 1 January to 1 October 2023, ‘the 20 Heures news programme on France 2 only devoted 10 segments to the conflict. Over these 10 months, Palestinians were given the chance to speak for 33 seconds.’

Presenting the timeline in this way automatically determines the nature of what makes the news (the massacre of Israelis), the protagonists’ roles (Hamas as terrorists, Israelis as victims and the IDF as avengers) and how the scenario unfolds: after the horror (7-26 October) comes ‘the response’ in the form of ‘Israel’s right to self-defence’ (27 October to 10 December). These two sequences account for most of the media coverage, leaving little room for the third: the international challenge to a potentially genocidal war (since early December), which has received significantly less coverage than the first phase (1). The importance of this chronological dimension is obvious: if media coverage had been structured around the everyday crimes committed by Israel in the occupied territories or its deadly blockade of Gaza, the ‘Palestinians’ right to self-defence’ might have been established as a legitimate news subject.

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An ally with a shared worldview

Or maybe not… Because there’s a second major axis of the journalistic coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: occidentalism. Newsrooms, aligned with an increasingly Atlanticist French and European foreign policy, see Israel as an ally that shares their worldview, with the same enemies, the same conviction that it belongs to a superior civilisation, that of liberal democracies. In the Middle East there rages ‘a battle of Western democracies against the obscurantism of radical Islamism’, as journalist Laurence Ferrari put it (Paris Match, 4 January).

Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin asked BFM TV host Apolline de Malherbe (27 October), ‘Because horror has been committed [on one side], does that mean it has to be committed on the other side too?’ She answered, ‘Which part of humanity’s views are those?’ – implicitly contrasting the enlightened West with the populous South where people harbour terrorists. ‘I love Israel … because it’s a country infused with the European spirit,’ said former director of Charlie Hebdo Philippe Val, now a commentator on Europe 1 (9 October), Vincent Bolloré’s far-right radio station.

As with Kyiv a year and a half earlier, the media endorse, without fact-checking or perspective, most of the narratives from the Israeli government and army, whose spokespeople mostly speak fluent English and know the journalistic codes of the target audience. Any information from Hamas, meanwhile, including the number of victims, is treated with scepticism. The media don’t just pick up the IDF’s numerous fake news stories (the 40 ‘beheaded babies,’ the 20 burned and executed children, the newborn put in an oven, the shot and disembowelled pregnant woman, the Hamas command centre under the Al-Shifa hospital etc) whose subsequent denial receives less attention and has less impact than the sensational stories that preceded it. It’s the official Israeli core narrative that the French media retail: the army of ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ has the mission of destroying an inhuman monster which has melted into the Gazan population; so Hamas bears primary responsibility for all victims of the conflict.

As so often, Bernard-Henri Lévy is the pre-eminent mouthpiece for this kind of propaganda. ‘Israel is forcing itself to respect humanitarian law,’ he insisted on LCI on 29 October. ‘Israel does everything in its power to ensure there are as few civilian casualties as possible. Israel distributes leaflets, it calls people up, sends all sorts of messages to Gazans telling them not to stay. “Don’t remain the hostages of these bastards who’ve been manipulating you for 15 years, leave, flee!” So humanitarian law is in Israelis’ heads and hearts as much as it’s in the heads and hearts of people calmly watching television in New York, Paris or Berlin.’ In short, as Netanyahu would put it on 31 December, Israel is conducting a war ‘the justice and morality of which is without peer’.

As time has gone by, this tale, which has been repeated across all news channels, has downplayed the rising number of Palestinian casualties and disguised as legitimate retaliation what looks like an attempt at ethnic cleansing. ‘So that people watching and listening understand, Hamas asks civilians not to move and then uses them as human shields and uses this as a form of propaganda, even though the Israeli army gives warnings and evacuation orders. Is that the aim of this terrorist movement’s propaganda?’ Benjamin Duhamel asked on 13 October on BFM RMC. Apparently baffled by such a one-sided ‘question’, his guest, journalist Georges Malbrunot, spluttered, ‘Yes… That’s pretty much it.’

Two days later, Duhamel remonstrated with an LFI member of parliament who had cautiously broached the idea of a ceasefire: ‘With Hamas? Hamas is a terrorist organisation! Does that mean you’re saying Israel should negotiate with Hamas? Are you basically with those who, especially in La France Insoumise, seem to see the terrorist attacks of 7 October and Israel’s response as comparable?’

It was the same refrain on France Inter one month and 12,000 deaths later (16 November): ‘If Israel wants to achieve its war aims more quickly, it will have to kill more civilians, since Hamas is sheltering behind civilians,’ said the public station’s favourite military expert Pierre Servent. ‘I don’t see how the army of any other democratic state could do better,’ he went on, highlighting ‘the warnings to populations, humanitarian corridors, a number of real precautions that the IDF takes to achieve its war aims.’ This, he asserted, was the exact opposite of Hamas, which was actively ‘creating a tragedy in the Gaza Strip, which will be blown out of proportion.’ However, it was Europe 1 that clinched France’s (highly contested) title of Netanyahu’s radio mouthpiece. Unchallenged by journalist Sonia Mabrouk, historian Georges Bensoussan asserted that Israeli soldiers ‘have brought life and survival, they’ve brought medical supplies’ (Europe 1-CNews, 16 November).

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Does Israel’s ‘kindly army’ look like us?

And since this kindly army looks much like us, French journalists cheer on their compatriots when they join its ranks. On 19 October Sonia Devillers, on France Inter’s morning show, treated ‘Yoval’, a student who was leaving France to fight in Israel, as a hero. Yoval did not seem to make any distinction between Hamas and Gaza’s civilian population. ‘Thank you, Yoval, safe travels!’ said Devillers, as he set off to invade Palestinian territory. Her colleague Judith Waintraub saluted another gallant knight in Le Figaro Magazine (24 November): Julien Bahloul, ‘born in France, which he left to get away from antisemitism’, and who ‘after five years on the i24News television channel, is putting his uniform back on to serve as an IDF spokesperson.’

The thought of subjecting French citizens fighting in Gaza to scrutiny does not occur to the editorial teams of the media, public or private, because their western bias presupposes a hierarchy between, on one hand, democracies threatened by Islamism allied with the great bogeymen of the moment (Russia and China) and, on the other, the rest of the world. No journalist will admit, however, that they have consigned part of the planet to sub-human status. But the result is the same: many journalists refuse to equate ‘massacres that have been committed – including rapes, women being mutilated – and today’s bombings, which are by way of a response, certainly involving deaths that are completely unacceptable’ (Sonia Mabrouk, Europe 1, 26 November).

Depending on whether journalists are describing Israel or Gaza, their language either humanises or dehumanises: Hamas ‘massacres’ or ‘kills’ its Israeli victims; Palestinians ‘die’. Who killed them is unspecified. As in the aftermath of every terrorist attack in the West, the press portrays individual Israeli victims movingly, while Palestinians are often reduced in reports to anonymous shadows wandering amid the rubble: on one hand, the dead are subjects, and we’re invited to identify with them as we do with characters in a film; and on the other, the dead are objects, who form a backdrop on which our gaze does not linger.

Nearly four months into the conflict, no major French media organisation has conducted a quantitative analysis of its coverage. In the US, the Intercept (9 January) analysed a huge corpus of articles from the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times published between 7 October and 24 November (2). The results would not surprise French readers. ‘The term “slaughter” was used by editors and reporters to describe the killing of Israelis versus Palestinians 60 to 1, and “massacre” was used to describe the killing of Israelis versus Palestinians 125 to 2. “Horrific” was used to describe the killing of Israelis versus Palestinians 36 to 4.’ The authors also noted that print media ‘paid little attention to the unprecedented impact of Israel’s siege and bombing campaign on both children and journalists in the Gaza Strip, despite the fact that these two groups ordinarily arouse much empathy in Western media.’ And, while Hamas’s killing of civilians is presented as the result of an intentional strategy, journalists depict the killings of Gazans ‘as if they were a series of one-off mistakes, made thousands of times’.

Which words for what crimes?

A study of the BBC further confirms that the language used is emotionally charged for some and clinical for others (3). Researchers examined 90% of the BBC’s online output between 7 October and 2 December. In addition to the almost automatic association of the words ‘massacres’ ‘murders’ and ’slaughter’ with Israeli victims – whereas Palestinians were ‘killed’ or ‘dead’ – the research established that terms expressing family relations such as ‘mother’, ‘grandmother’, ‘daughters’, ‘sons’, ‘spouses’ etc, were much more often applied to Israelis than Palestinians.

One hundred days after Hamas’s attack on Israel – which according to the Israeli government (15 December) resulted in a death toll of 1,139 (including 766 civilians) and 133 hostages still held in Gaza – the Israeli military, equipped and financed by the US, had killed 23,000 Palestinians (with another 8,000 reported missing); bombed hospitals, schools, churches, cultural centres, archives, roads and energy infrastructure; damaged or destroyed 60% of buildings; displaced 85% of the population; and methodically organised a water and medicine shortage and a large-scale famine that threatens 40% of those who remain.

It is ‘one of the most intense civilian punishment campaigns in history’, according to US historian Robert Pape, the scale of destruction surpassing that seen in Aleppo in Syria, Mariupol in Ukraine and even the German cities bombed by the Allies at the end of the second world war (4). And this has not been a case of things getting out of hand: the operation was preceded by official statements with genocidal undertones, not least those from socialist president Isaac Herzog (‘It’s an entire nation out there that is responsible’) and defence minister Yoav Galant (‘Gaza won’t return to what it was before. We will eliminate everything’).

Analysing Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians in line with the fate Israel’s leaders had in mind for ‘human animals’ did not require a major investigation to identify its origin, nor an understanding of advanced semiotics to grasp its meaning. So the media changed tack. After relentlessly putting out a threadbare story equating the Palestinians’ fate with ‘Islamist terrorism’, and describing Israeli policy as a series of ‘responses’ to these massacres, and after having displayed Western solidarity that made it possible to humanise the ally and vilify the enemy, most French journalists decided to look away. They deliberately scaled back coverage of the conflict to avoid having to ask awkward questions.

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Logic and justice should have meant that the army of commentators and decision-makers who in October proclaimed ‘Israel’s right to self-defence’ were questioned now about the consequences of this ‘right’ in light of the number of victims it had produced. And that they should be required to propose actions and sanctions to stop the slaughter. Failure to refer to Palestinian ‘terrorism’ had resulted in a media stoning for dissenters. This time, different terms seemed to be called for to describe Israel’s conduct of the war: ‘deportation’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, even ‘attempted genocide.’ Would journalists now turn their firepower on some of those who advocated unconditional support for Israel? Would they challenge them for their blindness, now that the slaughter of civilians, this time in Gaza, demanded a firmer tone towards Israel?

Ethnic cleansing or deportation?

They could have interviewed Yaël Braun-Pivet, president of the National Assembly, Gérard Larcher, president of the Senate, Éric Ciotti, Les Républicains (LR) president, Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, to name a few, as they had interviewed LFI leaders a few weeks earlier. ‘Do you approve of ethnic cleansing?’ ‘Or would you call it deportation?’ ‘Why not ban Israeli athletes, often army reservists, from the Olympics?’ ‘When will you finally impose sanctions against Israel?’ It scarcely needs saying that that didn’t happen. Even a newspaper like Le Monde, whose coverage has been fairer than many of its peers, still doesn’t insist that those who have committed war crimes in Palestine should be sanctioned by the international community.

In his New Year address, President Macron devoted 15 words to the 22,000 dead in Gaza. On the same day, Le Journal du dimanche gave no coverage at all to Palestinian suffering in its 48 pages. Two weeks later, two political leaders as different as Atlanticist Raphaël Glucksmann and far-right Éric Zemmour were interviewed at length, one by France Inter, the other by Europe 1. The only similarity between these two programmes: a 50-minute running time and not a single minute spent on Gaza. Glucksmann did mention attacks against a hospital, but it was that of Corbeil-Essonne (near Paris) by suspected Russian hackers.

Before that, on 21 December, François Hollande had again been invited on France Inter, and 16 minutes into the interview, the war in Gaza had still not been mentioned. At which point, Brice, a caller, interrupted: ‘How many tens of thousands of deaths in Palestine will it take before you finally decide to ask all your guests whether they unequivocally condemn the Israeli army’s atrocities? For the first few days, you counted up the dead on both sides, and then, I clearly remember, you stopped at 1,200, when they were equal. Now, we’ve reached 20 times more [Palestinian deaths]. So maybe it’s time to ask everyone if they unambiguously condemn all this.’ He was wasting his breath. The next day, LFI member of parliament François Ruffin appeared on France Inter; at no point was he asked about Gaza.

In the fortnight after Hamas’s attacks, all but two guests on France Inter’s morning show were asked about the massacres or spontaneously expressed their horror: ‘Today we’re compelled to say what it does to us inside, what we feel,’ actor Vincent Lindon said on 13 October. Two months later, this ‘moral obligation’ was gone. From 8 to 21 December, as an international debate on the danger of genocide in Gaza grew, including within UN agencies, only two guests on the France Inter morning show were asked about it.

It would be possible to endlessly list evidence of journalism’s pro-Israel bias, such as France Info’s live coverage on Friday 12 January of Tel Aviv’s defence against accusations of acts of genocide, while South Africa’s case before the International Court of Justice in the Hague received less attention. However, it’s necessary to go beyond criticising double standards, which would suggest this is amenable to adjustment. In fact, the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part of a broader shift.

In four months, the leaders of the fourth estate have not only fuelled a sense of cultural superiority which, as in the days of colonial empires, puts the West at the apex of humanity. They have, for the most part, endorsed the viewpoint of the Israeli far right and aided or condoned the marginalisation of opponents of the war in France by forbidding them to express solidarity that was taken as read until very recently. They have thus precipitated acceptance of the Rassemblement National at the same time as celebrating the military and moral rearmament of France in the name of the fight against the Russian threat and Islamist terrorism. The war liberal governments have waged for 15 years against ‘populist’ movements and ‘illiberal’ regimes has found an unexpected reinforcement here: the birth and establishment in France of authoritarian journalism.

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