PARIS — These days, all eyes are on President Trump’s relationship with the media.
But elsewhere in the world, things are not so good for journalists, either. This year, after all, no fewer than three reporters have been killed in E.U. member states; all of them had looked into corruption in some capacity. But the job is getting more difficult to do even in places where press freedom is enshrined and where journalists do not face physical harm. Look no further than the France of Emmanuel Macron, where quote review is the unofficial law of the land and where reporters are now being pushed further away from the center of power.
For months, France’s young, Anglophone president had been toying with the idea of moving the press room out of the Elysee Palace, the official seat of the French presidency. Not unlike the White House, the Elysee has long featured a devoted room for the presidential media corps — in this case, since the mid-1970s. But on Wednesday night, Macron’s office finally authorized doing away with it, saying in a statement that a new space outside the premises “will offer better working conditions for a larger number of journalists.”
The media corps was none too amused. In a blistering statement Thursday, the French Presidential Press Association (APP), France’s equivalent of a presidential press pool, criticized what it called an attack on “a tradition of transparency never challenged under the Fifth Republic,” the constitution that has governed France since 1958. The journalists also rejected Macron’s justification that this was merely about improving convenience.
“What’s at stake with the presence of a pressroom at the heart of the institution is neither a question of square meters nor of professional comfort,” the statement read. “It signals the place that the presidency affords to the role of information.”
The French media statement also compared Macron to Trump, who had floated the idea of moving the White House media corps out of the 49-seat Brady Press Room and into the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building. After considerable outcry, Trump relented. Macron, by contrast, did not.
An Elysee official declined to comment further Thursday afternoon.
“It’s important that journalists accredited to cover the Elysee know who enters and who exits the building,” said Daniel Schneidermann, a French media analyst and columnist for Libération, a leading French newspaper. He noted that French presidents in the past have used a back door to usher in undeclared visitors, a practice that could increase in the absence of an on-site press room.
In recent weeks, Macron, elected on a wave of goodwill in May 2017, has suffered a historic drop in popularity. According to IFOP, a major French polling agency, Macron’s popularity fell to just 29 percent in September, compared with 40 percent in June and 66 percent from the time of his election.
Macron has blamed French journalists for that drop in popularity. One of the factors pollsters attribute to his sharp drop in popularity over the summer is what’s called the Benalla Affair, in which one of his aides, Alexandre Benalla, was caught on video attacking two protesters while wearing police garb. Benalla, who was not a police officer, was not legally allowed to wear the garb, and the case became a national scandal — but only because the video was released by Le Monde, France’s leading daily newspaper.
Amid public outcry, Macron ultimately took the blame for the scandal, but only after attacking the media, even recycling some of Trump’s rhetoric about media legitimacy and “fake news,” albeit in a much more subdued tone. As he said in late July, during the height of the scandal: “We have a press that no longer seeks the truth.”
Other French politicians have been more extreme. Last week, for instance, in the aftermath of a police raid on his home and party headquarters that were related to, among other things, alleged campaign finance violations, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left “France Unbowed,” urged his followers to “ruin” journalists wherever possible.
On the world stage, Macron has been a staunch defender of a free media. Regarding the killing of the Saudi journalist — and Washington Post contributing columnist — Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul this month, Macron has pressed for answers from the desert kingdom, although he has not suspended arms sales.
On Wednesday, for instance, he emphasized to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman that, for France, a free media and the liberty of expression are an “essential priority,” according to a readout of their conversation.
But the reporters who cover the French president on a daily basis see a disparity between his words abroad and his actions at home. This, they say, is the real significance of his moving the press room.
“At a time when [the press] is under attack from all sides,” the APP statement reads, “this unilateral decision is incomprehensible and unacceptable.”