Agence France-Presse Branch of the French National CGT Journalists' Union (SNJ-CGT)
Agence France-Presse in Mortal Danger
At a meeting of the AFP board held on October 23, one of the three representatives of the French state announced that the CEO was being "mandated" to suggest changes to our founding statutes which would notably "provide the agency with a stable shareholder base" and "boost its stature on the international and European levels". The said proposals to be submitted by the end of the first quarter of 2009.
At the same meeting it was announced that due to the year-long delay in concluding a new "Aims and Means Contract" between the agency and the government - a pluriannual deal which notably lays down the amounts that government departments and other public bodies pay for AFP’s news services - there would be no increases at all in the rates for 2008.
It is the first time in almost 20 years that AFP has seen no rise in the price of the services which still make up around 41% of its total sales income.
On the basis of the 2007 figures and the 1.5% annual rises provided for in the previous contract, this comes to a loss of at least 1.6 million euros for the agency, during a year in which inflation will have hit around 3.5% in France. Given the present situation, things can only get worse in 2009.
One would have to be extremely naive to believe that such a loss was due only to technical factors, rather than to a desire to punish the agency. That’s what you get, in today’s France, when your journalists are not quick enough to jump to attention and give blanket coverage to each and every statement put out by the ruling party!
This is not trade union paranoia: over the past year AFP has come under unprecedented attack from the self-same government which today announces its desire to "modernise" us by terminating the statutes which for over half a century have underpinned both our independence and our status as a company that is neither private nor public.
These new developments are taking place against the backdrop of mounting troubles both for French media and the economy as a whole. The future of the French press is being decided at a "States-General" conference to which key journalists’ representatives were simply not invited, and which a number of journalists who were invited have since decided to walk out on. Meanwhile each day brings further news of major private banks being bailed out while the interests of employees are mysteriously forgotten.
As for France’s public television service, it is under extreme threat given the government’s failure to adequately compensate it for the abolition of advertising, due to begin in January. To add insult to injury, it faces the prospect of having its chief executive officer appointed directly by the president of the republic.
Given that the government’s announced aim is to strengthen France’s major private media groups - thereby riding roughshod over the principle of press pluralism - what plans does it have in store for AFP?
Whichever way one looks at it, the ending of our 1957 statutes would represent a mortal threat to AFP.
A Higher Profile for the State Would Compromise AFP’s Credibility
A reform which resulted in the arrival of a large state shareholder - such as the Caisse des Dépôts bank, or the future "sovereign wealth fund" that the French president seeks to set up - would run the risk of making us appear as nothing more than a state news agency. Particularly if, as has been the case with the public television service, the president decided that he wanted to directly appoint our CEO!
The credibility of a media company is an asset that takes years to build up, but it can be demolished in the space of a few months. It would be catastrophic if AFP, which currently benefits from statutes laid down by the French parliament, ie by the people, should in the future be seen as nothing more than an instrument of the executive branch.
Such an outcome would not only mean the end of our independence; it would be seen as a golden opportunity by our competitors, and perhaps not only outside France. Such a situation could create a vicious circle, in which a shrunken AFP would come more and more under overt state control, and thereby lose ever more influence and ever more clients.
AF-"P for Private"?
The possibility of bringing in one or several shareholders would open the door to the privatisation of AFP, an outcome demanded explicitly last May by Claude Goasguen, a member of parliament for the ruling UMP party (at the time Mr Goasguen denounced AFP as a "state agency", an assertion which seemed somewhat in contradiction with the statements of another UMP leader, Frédéric Lefebvre, who criticised us for not reporting all of his party’s press releases).
Such a scenario would see the agency turned into a limited company (société anonyme), with a share capital that would go to the highest bidder, or most likely to one of the industrial-media conglomerates whose leaders are personal friends of the current French president. That would be the end of our statutes, and notably their crucial second article, which explicitly state that AFP must not fall under the control "de facto or de jure, of any ideological, political or economic grouping".
It is not difficult to guess what the effects of such a privatisation would be on AFP’s staff. There would be either a mass redundancy plan or some other form of cut in staffing. [NB: since the original version of this statement was released, the CEO has confirmed that staff cuts will indeed take place, via the non-remplacement of people leaving the company.]
Whatever form it took, this would mean the departure of older and better-paid staff, meaning ever worse conditions for the younger people remaining behind, and notably for the many people who struggle on precarious short-term and freelance contracts, not to mention local status employees outside France.
As for the notion of bringing in "staff incentives" via some form of shareholding scheme, explicitly called for by the government representative on the board, it is pure trickery. For us, nothing can replace solid full-status labour contracts, as laid down in French labour law. If management wants to provide AFP journalists with additional income linked to the company’s results, they only have to recognise our authorial rights, as laid down in the country’s intellectual property legislation!
The company’s current status offers at least two huge advantages. The first is to be laid down in an act of parliament. The second is to guarantee that neither the state nor any private company can take control, "de facto or de jure," of the agency.
The killer detail is that when the government talks about giving us new statutes, we can be absolutely certain that they will no longer be enshrined in law. Wanting to conform to the European Union’s principles of "the private sector above all", they will seek to turn AFP into yet another limited company.
From that point on there will be absolutely nothing to protect us against privatisation, or even being broken up into separate entities. Witness what has happened to Gaz de France, formerly a state-owned utility and today a "société anonyme" that has been privatised and merged with the private Suez group. The French economy minister who swore at the time that GDF would never ever be privatised is today president of the republic!
Leave Our Statutes Alone!
Some defenders of a change in our 1957 statutes argue that it is needed to allow us to make more money. They might like to ponder the following statement (our translation):
"Right from the start, I made it clear that it was not my vocation to change the company’s statutes. That is not one of my concerns. I would simply note that AFP’s statutes have not prevented it from selling its products around the world, and from becoming probably the number-one general news agency in Asia and the Middle East. Furthermore, the statutes contain very stringent provisions on journalistic ethics and principles; values which are more indispensable than ever in today’s mass media environment."
Those words are from none other than CEO Pierre Louette, published in the daily Le Figaro on June 19, 2006.
Precisely. Nothing in our current statutes prevents the agency from prospering. Our problems result not from the statutes themselves, but from the refusal by our main stakeholders to provide us with the means to do our job. Alongside the billions currently being spent to save certain big financial concerns, the funds needed to allow AFP to solve its problems are small beer indeed.
Archaic Trade Unions Versus Dynamic Modernisers?
The fact that those who want to destroy our statutes present the move as a "modernisation" is a sign not of the strength of their ideas, but of their weakness. We only need to look around us at the moment to see just how many ideas that were relentlessly marketed as being "modern" can in fact lead the world to disaster.
Indeed, several of the policies followed by AFP management in recent years show just where an unthinking adherence to "modernity" - notably exemplified by the "Internet revolution" - can lead.
Is it really modern, for example to set up a subsidiary in the United States to create exotic quiz games on Facebook, a site which despite all the media buzz has already shown that it offers no viable business model? How much has that cost, and to what end?
Is it modern to take us away from our core skills by "going directly to the end user" on the Internet with the aim of bringing in direct advertising revenue, given that such revenue is not only microscopic but also more than likely to corrupt both our independence and our journalistic ethics?
Last but not least, is it really modern to seek cuts in staffing and payroll costs precisely when one is claiming to bring about fundamental changes in the way we work, given that due to the very nature of journalism, our industry is above all labour intensive? Let’s not forget that the COM (Aims and Means Contract) is above all based on a cost-cutting philosophy.
As regards the implied claim that trade unions such as ours are stuck in the past - an argument that we alas see trotted out even by some of our union comrades - we beg to differ. There is nothing more modern than defending the interests of staff, along with those of our company!
Defending our Statutes, Defending AFP Staff
The battle to save AFP is only just beginning.
In the coming days the SNJ-CGT will get together with the other unions to promote actions not only inside the company, but also around the world.
SOS: AFP in danger!
SNJ-CGT-AFP, Wednesday October 29, 2008