The government today announced the launching of France's first private television network. Broadcasts are due to begin in February, less than a month before crucial legislative elections.
The project, which has been supported personally by Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, has provoked a political storm here, with protests from both the right-wing opposition and leading cultural figures on the grounds that it will result in a lowering of standards. Even some members of Mitterrand's Socialist Party have expressed reservations about opening French television to foreign influences and interests.
The decision, awarding the potentially lucrative contract to a Franco-Italian consortium, was foreshadowed last week by a bizarre political battle for control of France's best-known landmark: the Eiffel Tower. The 984-foot monument, the highest structure in Paris, is perfect for transmitting television.
Until now, access to the tower has been controlled by the neo-Gaullist mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, who is strongly opposed to Mitterrand's television project. Last Friday, however, the government introduced legislation allowing state-approved broadcasting organizations the right to place television transmitters anywhere they wished.
"The Eiffel Tower leans to the left," exulted the pro-government Le Matin in a front-page headline. "They have stolen the Eiffel Tower," countered the right-wing Le Quotidien de Paris.
The "battle of the Eiffel Tower," as it has been dubbed by the French press, provides an illustration of the heated political controversy generated by the Socialist plans for independent television.
Socialist ministers have depicted the creation of an independent television channel as a major step toward the relaxation of state controls over the audio-visual media and proof of the left's commitment to greater public liberty. Traditionally, even the more conservative French leaders have taken a proprietary attitude toward television, regarding it as an essential public relations weapon.
A government statement today said the new television channel would begin broadcasts by Feb. 20 at the latest. Nationwide legislative elections are due to take place on March 16.
For the right, the project is nothing more than a crude electoral ploy. Opposition leaders including Chirac have warned that the new network will open the floodgates to American-style television programs, thus undermining the standards set by the four existing state-run television channels.
Leading cultural figures fear that the new television channel could do irreparable damage to the thriving French cinema industry by offering viewers a diet of imported movies.
"I find it disgraceful that a government which was supported by creative people is in the process of stabbing them in the back," commented film director Bertrand Tavernier.
Concern about the imminent arrival of "Coca-Cola television" in France has been reinforced by the fact that the new consortium includes an Italian businessman, Silvio Berlusconi, as one of its leading members. He has used the American formula of movies and quiz shows to build up an audio-visual empire in Italy of three private networks and over 50 individual stations.
Berlusconi, 48, who has been nicknamed the "king of Italian television," said today that he did not see how it was possible to make French television more American than it already is. The state-run channels devote considerable air time to "Dynasty," "Dallas" and "Starsky and Hutch."
"We took a look at American television series to see if there were any available. But they had already been taken by French television," Berlusconi said.
Government spokesmen today attempted to sidestep the issue of Berlusconi's participation in the project by stressing that majority control over the new company would be in the hands of Frenchmen. Sixty percent of the shares will be owned by a group headed by Jerome Seydoux, a wealthy industrialist with left-wing sympathies.
The formal agreement granting an 18-year franchise to the new company was signed last night by Seydoux, Berlusconi, and the French communications minister, Georges Fillioud. It stipulates that the majority of programs should be produced in France.
By pushing the new channel through before the elections, Mitterrand appeared to be attempting to present the right-wing opposition with an irreversible fait accompli. Opposition leaders, however, have warned that they will consider revoking the license of the new station in the likely event of a right-wing victory in March.
The government gave the formal go-ahead for two independent television networks as well as several dozen individual stations in large towns earlier this year. Studies have shown, however, that the advertising market can only support one such network at present.