"AFP, A Unique Undertaking": An interesting doctoral thesis

, by Admin

Jade Azzoug Montane, "AFP: A unique undertaking, from its origins to the birth of its exceptional statutes, 1832-2015" A critical note.

  • NB: The title and quotes from Jade Montane’s thesis have been translated by SOS-AFP.

"This thesis on AFP’s political history and its relations with the French authorities explains the political, diplomatic and economic factors which have determined its links to the state." (page 100)

The writer, who works for AFP [1], provides information from a wide range of sources which were not publicly available before. She is able to quote previously-unexplored sources, such as the minutes of AFP board meetings. They constitute the most interesting aspect of her thesis, which is accessible via the internet. [2].

Unfortunately, the work is marred by omissions, a lack of precision and an uncritical viewpoint that leaves it close to the dominant ideas defended by successive AFP CEOs over the past 20 years.

The author states that her approach is based on "three hypotheses" (listed on page 12) They are:

1 "AFP’s January 1957 statutes do not allow the agency to develop and face up to new forms of competition. To ensure its survival, the company needs to reform."

This idea is regularly put forward by those favouring "free and undistorted competition", as laid down in European Union regulations aimed at banning most forms of state aid. In reality, AFP has undergone continual reform, and SOS-AFP believes it can perfectly well hold on to its world-class status within the framework of its 1957 statutes.

However much of the substance of the company’s statutes was stripped away in 2015, when the founding document was revised to make it compatible with European Union treaties. These changes included a formal recognition that the agency could engage in purely commercial activities, outside the public interest mission laid down by the original statutes. [3]

If, in spite of the decisions already taken in 2014-15 the proponents of EU neoliberalism consider that the company still needs to "reform itself" and that its statutes are a real obstacle to its future development, that is because their real aim remains to further undermine AFP’s public interest mission in order to turn it into a company like any other, with no more trace of its original "sui generis" characteristics. The proof of this orientation can be found in a statement published by Fabrice Fries, the current CEO, in 2018. In a document entitled "Let’s Change!", Fries openly states that part of the latest "Aims and Means Contract" with the French state, to run from 2019 to 2023, involves "opening the file on capitalisation of the Agency once plans for transformation have moved forwards." [4]

2 The second of Jade Montane’s basic ideas states that: "The [French] state needs AFP, and retains influence over the agency via its statutes"

This may have been true in the past, but we’ll see if it remains relevant in years to come. The counter-reform of the statutes that was signed into law in 2015 certainly boosts the state’s hold on AFP, in particular by giving a formal role to the pluri-annual "Aims and Means Contracts" in the revised 1957 law. [5] De facto, this places AFP under the double rule of the French government and the European Commission, the latter being charged with ensuring that France does not "overcompensate" the supposed "excess cost" of the agency’s public interest missions, on pain of sanctions.

The French state’s control over AFP nevertheless has a purpose, which is economic. It is to reduce state spending, to subject the agency to the laws of the market and to open up potentially profitable activities to private predators.

Given the way the media landscape is heading in France—with print and TV media mainly controlled by people close to President Emmanuel Macron—one can ask whether AFP really remains "necessary" to the French state. Useful, certainly, but perhaps not "necessary".

This is also true when seen from the viewpoint of France’s foreign policy. AFP is no longer the same symbol of French influence that it was at the time of the Cold War and non-alignment under de Gaulle. The political context has changed, as has AFP itself. The agency is no longer seen as a key vector of French-speaking influence backed up with a public service mission, but as a "multicultural enterprise" within the framework of free-market globalisation.

3 "The originality of the 1957 statutes provides AFP with editorial independence, ensuring quality content that is acknowledged the world over. This gives it a key role in the age of all-digital content."

This is more of a marketing slogan than a proven fact. In their 1957 version, the statutes gave AFP structural independence from both political and economic centres of power. As for editorial independence, it is by no means cast in stone thanks to a piece of paper, but rather has to be fought for on a daily basis. AFP’s independence has suffered from the changes brought in from 2015, and from the resulting financial constraints on the agency and its staff.

In conclusion, we appreciate the rich documentation provided by this thesis, without sharing the arguments and demonstrations of its author.