I don't pretend to know much about French politics. That's because my French isn't good enough. But I do know quite a bit about international media. And the announcement earlier today (8 January) by President Nicolas Sarkozy is just plain stupid. Although it is true that French international broadcasting suffers from a lack of coordination, Sarkozy also seems to believe if France wants to share ideas with the world, that is best done in French - with some foreign language subtitles. If that were true, CNN with French subtitles would have a major market share in France at this moment. Subtitling doesn't work because it can only help you with the content not the context of a story.
"I think a public channel, France-World, that would retain the identity of each of the participants, can only speak French," the president said. "I'm not inclined to use taxpayers' money to broadcast a channel that doesn't speak French," he is quoted as saying.
He has called for a new state-owned channel called France Monde, bringing together the resources of TV5, France 24 and Radio France Internationale [RFI], to be set up "this year" and to broadcast only in "French". "There could perfectly well be subtitles according to region - Spanish, Arabic, English - to provide France's point of view". The idea is to create "as rapidly as possible, in any case this year" a "France Monde [France World] label, that is a holding company that would unite the resources of TV5, France 24 and RFI in ways still to be debated" to "provide a much more imposing French presence than at present".
This is clearly a case of death by integration. RFI and France 24 are two completely different beasts. Personally, I think France 24 is way ahead of its radio counterpart. That's because they have integrated their foreign language production in Arabic and English from day one. So they share resources, but craft each channel according to the target area. That's because they are aware that they have competition. Visiting there last month, I was impressed by the buzz in the building and the way they were putting French stories into an international context.
RFI does a good job in Africa, where its French service plays an important role in the Francophone countries. Its weakness has always been the RFI foreign language services which are relatively expensive to run, on the air for only parts of the day, and of a varying standard. They have never really embraced the web, prefering to stick with linear storytelling through radio. Integration of RFI English with France 24 English just won't work on any platform. Just compare the websites of RFI English with France 24, it is night and day.
So yes, they can all do a better job of co-operation. France could beat the US tomorrow in the international broadcasting game- infact I think the figures prove they already have. There are some obvious savings that can be made on the radio side. But a French-only policy is definitely NOT the way. For France's sake, let's hope the President has indeed confused the missions, culture, language and purpose of these organisations. And that's one hell of a confusion for just one evening. I hope he has started a debate not announced a decision.
I see the BBC coverage is phrased as though France 24 is finished and off the air. I think that shows that France 24 is making an impact if their journalists cover it in such a way.
Sarkozy's other idea of financing French public TV through a tax on Internet services (and creaming some of the profits from the private channels) has some merit, providing the French public media become a lot more accountable to the public.
I get the impression that Sarkozy has already given up on radio as a medium of influence. He interchanges the use of media and television, but never media and radio.