CNews, the Paris-based news channel whose heated talkshows on crime and immigration has led critics to call it a “French Fox News”, this month hit record viewing figures, sparking concerns on the left that its focus on law and order and national identity could boost the far-right Marine Le Pen at next year’s presidential election.
The free-to-air news channel, which is part of the Canal+ group owned by the French industrialist Vincent Bolloré, has more than doubled its viewers over the past two years with its unique brand of raucous current-affairs debate shows, where well-known right-wing commentators thrash out their views with political figures from across the spectrum, and news bulletins that are often led by stories on crime and immigration.
The channel’s star – who appears nightly on the debate show Face à L’Info, which sometimes peaks at more than 1 million viewers – is Eric Zemmour, an essayist, polemicist and journalist for the newspaper Le Figaro, whose finger-jabbing oration peppered with historical references has seen him labelled France’s most famous far-right ideologue.
Zemmour’s criminal convictions for racial and religious hate speech include a 2010 ruling after he said “most drug dealers are black and Arab” and in 2019 when he likened Muslims in France to “colonisers”. But that has not dented his prominent TV career on several channels and his books that top nonfiction bestsellers lists. In court he has argued that he is not a “provocateur” but a faithful observer of reality who refuses political correctness.
In March, France’s media regulator fined CNews €200,000 (about £172,000) for broadcasting comments by Zemmour on child migrants and the asylum system which it deemed hate speech.
But since then, viewing figures have continued to rise for Zemmour and the channel’s other popular weekday shows. This month, daily viewing figures showed that for the first time, on several dates, CNews edged ahead of its main rival, the rolling news channel BFMTV, to become France’s top rolling news channel in several weekday slots.
Observers are divided on whether CNews is driving France’s current political focus on crime, insecurity and law and order by featuring the topics high on its bulletins, setting the agenda for the 2022 presidential election race, or whether it is reflecting the longstanding shift to the right of the French electorate. An ifop poll last month found the issues of security and the fight against terrorism would play a bigger role in French voters’ choices in next year’s presidential election than unemployment.
Polls currently show Emmanuel Macron likely to again face the far-right Marine Le Pen in the presidential run-off next spring.
Serge Nedjar, director general of CNews, told the Guardian that there was no comparison to Rupert Murdoch’s US Fox News, which supported Donald Trump. “We are not affiliated to any party, or any politician, and we’re light years away from that,” he said.
He said CNews simply tackled news topics, like crime and insecurity, that were of interest to French viewers but which had little airtime on other channels. When the channel rebranded itself four years ago, it deliberately chose fewer news bulletins, giving more airtime to “what French people wanted – explainers, discussions, views and opinions”, he added.
“We feature all topics, even those seen as the most flammable,” Nedjar said. “We talk about insecurity, immigration, identity – these are subjects which for a very, very long time were classed as being the topics of the far right. But today these topics are what interests 80% of French people. So we feature all topics and we invite everyone [from all political parties] into the studio.”
Nedjar said a recent CSA poll for the channel found that 27% of its viewers identified with the left, 9% with the centre and 24% with the right, including 9% who identified with Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party. A total of 40% of viewers either did not identify with a party or did not say.
“When our competitors say we’re a far-right channel, that is the figure we give to show we are absolutely not a far-right channel,” Nedjar said.
France’s system of TV regulation means that all channels, including CNews, must give equal studio airtime to figures from different political parties in electoral periods. But those neutrality rules do not apply to the many pundits and commentators round the table.
Pundits appearing on CNews often claim to provide more “straight-talking” than what they disparage as politically correct, woolly liberals on other French media.
Julien Odoul, who is leading the regional election campaign for Le Pen’s party in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and frequently appears on CNews and other channels, said: “CNews is one of the rare media that talks about real life … showing what French people see everyday: their difficulties, insecurity, the peril of immigration. CNews talks about sensitive issues – urban rioting, attacks on police and attacks linked to immigration. Its merit is in addressing those issues and including all political sensibilities in the debate.”
Benoît Hamon, the former Socialist presidential candidate, said on French radio this week that CNews had “a line that was ultra-conservative, discriminatory, Islamophobic and often racist”, adding that he wouldn’t label every CNews journalist that way but there was a problem with the channel’s “tone”.
Michael Zoltobroda, media correspondent for Le Parisien, said it was the first time in France that a TV channel had so openly prioritised right-wing issues and commentators. “Their editorial line is immigration, violence, drugs and Islam. They top their news bulletins with that type of issue and then develop it over the course of a studio debate.”
Jacques Walter, professor in information science at the university of Lorraine, said France was in a “historic period where the themes of danger, violence and decline are picking up” and the role of TV news channels was “nuanced” – both reflecting society and contributing to “normalising a certain type of debate”.