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Agence France-Presse Branch of the French National CGT Journalists' Union (SNJ-CGT)


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Storms Ahead for AFP?

 

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Have the French authorities decided to put AFP’s future up for grabs by delaying for as long as possible the signature of a new Aims and Means Contract (COM) and the provision of 21 million euros that the company has requested in order to upgrade its computer system? The CEO had assured us that the new COM contract, due to run from this year to 2013, would be signed in July. The French Culture Ministry had given similar assurances to a trade union delegation. It is now mid-September, and there is still no deal. Worse, there were rumours over the summer that people close to the French executive intended to make the Agency pay dearly for its editorial independence, and also no doubt for the lively reaction on the part of its staff to repeated attacks by the spokesman for the ruling UMP party. The recent frontal attacks on the Agency, which included overt references to a possible privatisation, resulting in the loss of state subscriptions, were aimed at destabilising AFP staff. Frédéric Lefebvre and Dominique Paillé, spokesmen for the UMP, even complained to the AFP High Council, the body which guarantees the Agency’s independence. Although their application was rejected, they vowed to try again. In its last statement, the CGT raised the possibility that AFP could be privatised, or even broken up. Such a disaster could be lying in wait for us as part of the major overhaul of France’s media landscape that the executive branch of the French administration has called for, and of which the public sector TV company is currently the symbol. Already, teams may be at work on preparing just such a scenario in government offices. Could the media "States General" conference to be convened by the French president in the autumn provide the setting for a surprise announcement? That could well be the case; the conference is due to be attended by media barons who have but one desire: to abandon AFP and form their own transnational multimedia groups, with the blessing of the highest levels of government. Unfortunately we have to be prepared for that worst-case scenario. AFP’s trade unions and staff must be ready once again to defend the Agency, for the sake of freedom of information, not to mention our wages and working conditions.

The COM contract: a double-edged sword

The CGT has made no secret of its reservations about the principles behind the four-year COM contracts with the state. They represent a purely profits-based logic, and provide no way for AFP to develop and compete with its mainly US and British rivals. That being said, in the absence of any new agreement with the French state, the Agency has now been running for nine months on a fictional budget, without any way of planning beyond the here and now. This at a time when there are heavy financial commitments to meet, including the repayment of the leaseback deal on the headquarters building, and a private sector loan. The CGT journalists’ union (SNJ-CGT) is concerned that draconian conditions will be placed on a new contract, whenever it is finally signed. These could include new cutbacks on labour costs, further reductions in the scope of our coverage, or even the farming-out of certain sectors to other companies, as has been the case with our photo deal with Getty. (It is worth noting that since that agreement was signed, Getty has been swallowed up by the Hellman and Friedman private equity fund). Also of concern is the fallout from the sale of AFX, our business wire service which was bought up by the Canadian giant Thompson, since renamed Thompson-Reuters. Of course it is going to be necessary to replace the news provided formerly by AFX, but is that a reason to throw ourselves into the embrace of Dow Jones, which is now controlled by the US-Australian magnate Rupert Murdoch?

Many Questions, Few Answers

The company’s board has not convened since the spring. The CEO has sought to reassure board members by proposing to reform AFP’s founding statutes. The company’s development is being pushed through without any increase in staffing, and in some sectors to the accompaniment of cuts. On the commercial front, AFP is providing ever more of its services for free to Internet users, in hopes of earning money from advertising alone. This approach is not only very risky as regards our traditional clients, but also infringes on our editorial independence, as laid down in Article 2 of our statutes. The SNJ-CGT has brought a complaint before the High Council on that point. Following on from the launch of an English-language quiz product on the Facebook social networking site and of the AFPBB site in Japanese, management’s latest dubious initiative is the creation of a "channel" on the video-sharing site YouTube. It allows the general public to view for free selected AFP videos in English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic. Management has so far abstained from even mentioning this new venture on our intranet, publishing only a press statement on the English section of the public web site. Meanwhile the growth of journalistic blogs in English, or the "Citizenside" web site, which encourages everyone to consider themselves a journalist, not to mention the glut of images — some 2,500 a day — validated on our Photo service during the Olympic Games, are also of concern.

The GPEC project on future employment trends

Under the terms of a French law dating from 2005, AFP management has initiated studies aimed at the conclusion of a formal labour agreement on the "Advance Management of Jobs and Careers" (Gestion prévisionnelle des emplois et des carrières, or GPEC). It has seen fit to view this process within a framework of job cuts and technological renewal. In a preliminary document management stated (our translation) that "in the light of the staff age structure the expected number of people leaving for retirement will facilitate the (required) renewal, but will not be enough." Just in case anyone might jump to the conclusion that this could mean more rather than less jobs, the document goes on to note that "the (French government) policy of only replacing one in two of civil servants taking retirement is very much on the minds of the partners with whom we are negotiating over the COM." In other words, we can expect job cuts among journalists, maybe on a similar basis to those carried out in AFP’s technical services, where only half of staff taking early retirement will be replaced by new hires. Far from announcing progress on the jobs front, AFP’s interpretation of the GPEC law is therefore likely to result in staff doing even more with even less, ie, at best, "working harder to earn the same amount". It may even mean a fully-fledged redundancy plan for journalists. Management proposed that a trade union representative take part in the task force that it has just created to plan for the GPEC agreement. However the CGT is not in favour of this because it would create confusion over the unions’ role, which is to represent employees rather than take part in management-sponsored study groups. When the formal negotiations start on the GPEC plan, we will of course be there to do our job, which is to defend the interests of staff and oppose a new redundancy plan. Industrial relations run into the buffers Such wariness is all the more justified in that even pre-existing industrial relations dialogue is practically at a standstill. There has been no progress on such key issues as authorial rights for journalists, gender equality, arrangements for older staff and a regional status for non-HQ staff, not forgetting the obligatory annual wage negotiations (NAO, or négociation annuelle obligatoire). Meanwhile dozens of people continue to languish on precarious short-term contracts, without the prospect of a normal job. As for freelance journalists, many are being used illegally to fill in on jobs which should normally be full-time ones.

The SNJ-CGT PROPOSES:

  1. On the editorial level:
    - An end to the production of blogs on a pseudo-volunteer basis, without any extra payment;
    - An end to the production of "corporate" content by the Photo Service;
    - Full information on the situation of the Fuel/Newzwag subsidiary in the United States, and on all other new projects;
  2. On the GPEC project, monthly information reports on management’s working group to be provided to the Works Committee;
  3. Wages: A schedule for future negotiations, particularly the light of the joint unions’ demand for a 100-euro bonus for all;
    - Full employment (CDI) status for everyone on on short-term contracts as and when jobs become available or new needs appear;
    - Full employment (CDI) status for freelancers employed in the Paris suburbs;
  4. Management to call on the French government to ensure that AFP has durable resources allowing it to function without compromising our current statutes.
AFP Branch of the CGT Journalists’ Union (SNJ-CGT) - Paris, Friday September 12, 2008