French Presidency of the EU. The strange methods of the Élysée with the European press

(B2) In the eyes of European journalists, France is France, this mixture of grandeur, grandiloquence, a touch of arrogance too, but of elegance and efficiency. A Republic in all its majesty. In short, a country apart in the European scheme. But be careful not to disappoint.

The centrality of power

The verticality of power in France always surprises the European journalist. There is not a single country that can claim such an organization in Europe (with the exception… of Russia) where an order given from above is quickly executed in all parts of the territory, in a fairly similar way, and effective. Where, in most other countries, you often have to go through negotiations in multiple circles (government, parliament, regions, etc.), where compromise is so innate that it is sometimes inexplicable, where there is a certain autonomy of powers. In France there is no overly esoteric discussion. Centrality is essential.

For better or for worse

Every detail requires an endorsement from the power. The majority party, the government, the parliament are under orders. The army and diplomacy are directly involved at the highest level of power. With a direct and infallible chain of command, they can very quickly implement any decision. Counter-powers suffer from a congenital weakness and are incapable of exercising their role. Result: unfailing efficiency when the power knows what it wants, but fairly erratic as soon as the power hesitates or is so engorged by all the demands that the machine jams. The best… or the worst.

Control of the press, a strong temptation of power

And in terms of relations with the press, the Élysée is in the process of carving out a reputation for being the worst in European circles.

Manners from another age

Habitual customs — which are based on a fundamental principle, that of the freedom of the press — are discarded. What is called the follow-up (or follow-up question), i.e. the possibility for a journalist to repeat his question or to ask it in another way, after having obtained a first answer — a quasi-absolute right at European and Anglo- Saxon —, is considered by the Elysée press service as a gesture not very friendly ". Where a European spokesperson will go to apologize to the journalist if he has forgotten (inadvertently or lack of time) to give him the floor again for his follow-up, the French spokesperson assumes it shamelessly. No follow-up question.

Preference for national questioners

Same for the questions. In a press conference, it is often (it must be recognized) a merry mess. Everyone raises their hand. And the spokesperson chooses who he wants. But, in general, he will try to vary the different nationalities. It is all the art of the spokesperson then to mix between the large and small countries, those of the south and the east or the north and the west, without forgetting the non-Europeans (Arabs, Russians or Ukrainians, Chinese or Japanese, Africans, etc.). Everyone has their chance. At the Élysée, this imperative of variety does not exist much. We will first take the “known” ones: BFM, TF1-LCI, AFP, etc. And after, one or two to see.

Choosing the journalist is choosing the question

Example. During President Macron's press conference with the European press at the start of his presidency in January, the questions had been carefully distributed in advance to a very select audience of journalists who were supposed to represent a range of questions of interest to President. So carefully distributed that the spokesperson responsible for designating the journalist who was going to ask the question knew his name, first name, media (even the question he was going to ask) (1). So carefully limited in number—two French, two Europeans (Italian and German)—that it was ridiculous in the sense of European diversity and freedom of the press. Europe today cannot be reduced to Italy and Germany. We are no longer in the 1950s, at the time of the Europe of the Six and the ECSC, the European coal and steel community.

Common practices in more authoritarian countries

One would have thought it was a temporary mistake. Nay. During the presidency press trip, organized at the beginning of January, what was the astonishment of the journalists to see approaching when they wanted to ask a question, a person in charge of the communication service to know what question they were going to ask! Same during the gymnich, a spokesman for the Quay approached to ask what the subject of the question was. A practice that shocks most European, French and Belgian journalists, but also (and above all) those most accustomed to this type of power entry (those from Eastern countries in particular). A very Soviet practice in fact.

Freedom of the press challenged

Moreover, the questions were carefully limited to a few. In January, during the presentation to the press, the French ministers indulged in a long soliloquy, leaving only a minimal portion for questions. A well-known process listed in communication courses: in order not to leave too many questions, you have to occupy the field. Which, again, is a problem, a real problem of equality. Usually, the aim of these exercises, where there are a good thirty nationalities represented (EU and non-EU), is to give the floor to as many people as possible. This, in order to give each sensitivity the care of pointing out a question. It is moreover an unwritten rule when a country has the presidency of the European Union to comply with this exercise (sometimes tedious, it must be recognized).

Diversity challenged

It is this diversity of questions, coming from all horizons, which makes the interest and the charm of a European conference. We suddenly discover an underestimated or simply unknown problem. The Élysée apparently does not care. The objective is not to facilitate the work of the press, it is to control, organize everything, govern everything. With five or six questions, he even considers himself to be very generous compared to the habit (2). Several European colleagues have reminded me of this: even the Hungarian Viktor Orban (during the 2011 presidency) or the Slovenian Janez Jansa (during the 2021 presidency) — who sometimes get comfortable with the national press and the rule of law — do not dare to adopt this type of behavior.

Equality violated

Another example which may seem like an administrative detail but is not one: accreditations for meetings — such as the gymnich (informal meeting of Foreign Ministers) or the Versailles summit (March 10 and 11). These are opened very late and, above all, the journalist will not know until the last moment (the day before) whether his accreditation has been accepted. For the summit on Thursday and next Friday, we will have to wait until Wednesday! This leaves a large part to arbitrariness and prevents the European journalist from Brussels or the depths of Europe from getting organized. Unlike someone who lives in Paris and can come. We are here at ultimate discriminatory inorganization (2). The unacknowledged goal is in fact to favor Parisian and “Élysée” journalists as much as possible at the expense of European journalists, reputed to be more rebellious and, in fact, of whom the Élysée is afraid, because it does not control them.

  • Nor should we underestimate the total disorganization of the PFUE 2022, which wants to manage everything, micro-manage and multiply the levels of command to such an extent that inefficiency and the absence of responsibility become the rule. The organization of informal defense and foreign affairs meetings in Brest in January was a monument. Between the Armies who did not communicate with the Quai d'Orsay, the private guards who did not communicate with official security, the private service providers who did as they pleased, and a total lack of organization and knowledge -live, Covid rules taken to such an extreme…this meeting will go down in European memory as the most poorly organized and poorly run of any meeting for 30 years. No presidency has managed to do worse.

Not respecting the rules = crime of lèse-majesté

For the Élysée, in fact, the press must be disciplined, organized and structured. And especially not to have a single hair protruding from the stone. I witnessed it, amused. President Macron's trip to Budapest, when the questions had been carefully distributed: two maximum, and the journalists authorized to ask the question designated (3). Faithful to our European practices and to the rules of freedom of the press which states that every journalist has the right to try his luck and ask a question, I dared to raise my finger to ask a third question. Not included in the program: a sacrilege. The question was however obvious and natural (on European strategic autonomy). Question to which Emmanuel Macron complied without any difficulty, answered in a short and interesting way. He was ready to continue this discussion. But the “henchmen” of the Élysée have cut it short. No question of breaking the scenario written in advance. The president's response was not included in the official report. A crime of lèse-majesté.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. Usually in a European press conference, each journalist introduces himself.
  2. If only to book train/plane tickets or accommodation, do not pay the full price or risk having nothing.
  3. This practice will not shock the journalists responsible for following the Élysée, accustomed to being limited to the number of questions and predetermining who will ask the question. The press officer usually passing through the ranks to find out who will ask the question.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).