August 10, 2023 - 1:00pm

The most recent front page of French weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche (Le JDD), its first following a six-week journalists’ strike, is certainly attention-grabbing. The headline, “We’re not mere ‘news items’”, personally addresses President Emmanuel Macron, with an open letter from the families of twenty separate recent victims of murder, rape and extreme violence. It expresses their strong feeling that the perpetrators’ rights and wellbeing have mattered more to the French justice system than their children, siblings and parents. “We have been abandoned, alone in our sorrow, unconsidered,” they say.

The picture splashed under the headline supposedly represents the family, friends and neighbours of one such victim: 15-year-old Enzo P., who was stabbed to death three weeks ago in a small village in Normandy. Unfortunately, what it shows is a gathering of mourners for another young man: Enzo B., the 16-year-old victim of a hit-and-run driver in a completely different part of the country in January.

Delighted with Le JDD’s blunder, the rest of the Parisian press gleefully pounced on the paper’s recently appointed editor, Geoffroy Lejeune, whose background at the hard-Right newsweekly Valeurs Actuelles was the reason for the aforementioned staff strike. Lejeune was appointed by Le JDD’s new owner, the conservative billionaire industrialist Vincent Bolloré — the man the French Left loves to hate, and a traditional Catholic who may be the closest equivalent France has to the Koch Brothers in the United States. 

Lejeune is no stranger to controversy, believing provocation makes for more engaging reading. At Valeurs Actuelles, he once ran a summer alternative fiction series in which the black MP Danièle Obono was depicted as a slave in pre-colonial Africa, purportedly to argue the point that slavery was no Western invention. Obono sued for racism and won damages. 

This is a world away from the paper founded by the legendary postwar editor Pierre Lazareff in 1948. For a long time Le JDD was the only national Sunday newspaper in France, and became an institution of sorts. It was also the paper of choice when politicians wished to grant interviews, as its pre-eminence guaranteed “everyone who matters” would see them.

For what it’s worth, I was Le JDD’s business editor in the early 1990s, and discovered that even not terribly interesting Q&As with big corporate bosses were preferred by the then-editor to more labour-intensive investigations or analyses. The approach was a kind of power spheres’ Hello, where getting big names and staying friends with them mattered most. The paper got better over the years, but the cosiness with political and business moguls remained.

The Paris establishment detests Bolloré, whose last friend at the Élysée Palace was Nicolas Sarkozy, just as it detests Lejeune. The proprietor is notorious for interfering in the editorial line of his media properties: aiming to reshape it as “the French Fox News”, he pushed CNEWS sharply to the Right after acquiring its parent group Canal+ eight years ago. Between 2019 and 2021, the channel’s star host was Éric Zemmour, whose regular show Face à l’Info ratcheted up audience ratings. The French equivalent of Ofcom ruled that Zemmour had to leave when he decided to make his presidential run.

After the journalists’ strike predictably failed, some 60 members of staff announced their departure from Le JDD. Meanwhile, the political class, including cabinet ministers, made a public point to warn that they would have nothing to do with the publication under its new editor. Their blacklisting may not last long: the new Minister Delegate for Urban Development, Sabrina Agresti-Roubache, has a double-page interview in this week’s “Enzo” edition. Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne angrily called the minister out on it, at which point Agresti-Roubache let it be known that she had checked with Macron himself before granting that interview. 

Political insiders suggest Macron did it to annoy the PM, who he thinks is getting too big for her boots. As long as some of the labyrinthine Parisian politics are still played out on the JDD platform, Geoffroy Lejeune has a shot at making his surprise appointment work. 

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a Paris-based journalist and political commentator.