December 2014: "Don’t Let AFP Lose Its Independence"

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Four AFP Unions call a strike, and appeal to French MPs, over new plans to reform the agency’s statutes.

Latest update of this page: Friday December 19, 2014

CGT, FO, SUD and CFE-CGC trade unions at AFP

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Consensus Lacking on AFP Reform Projects: We Won’t Give an Inch

Statement by FO and SUD (all categories) SGLCE-CGT, SNJ-CGT, CFE-CGC trade unions

A significant number of AFP staffers observed the call by the CGT, FO, SUD and CFE-CGC trade unions to strike on December 10 and 11, both in Paris and across France. The disruption caused by the 24-hour stoppage clearly caught management by surprise. The strike was a clear repudiation of CEO Emmanuel Hoog, who when asked in an interview with Le Figaro about labor-management relations within AFP, claimed that the situation at the agency was "quite calm".

Now no-one can claim that there is a consensus on the projects underway, which involve changes to AFP’s statutes, the creation of an investment/debt subsidiary, a new Aims and Means Contract with the state, and France’s 2015 budget. These projects are the result of an opaque process and are being imposed without widespread support from staff. Above all they are backed by a threat aimed at killing all transparent debate: that if they are not put into place by the end of March 2015, the European Commission may punish France for having provided state aid to AFP in contravention of EU competition rules.

What a contrast with the exemplary democratic process which resulted in the 1957 law that created AFP in its present form! That document was adopted unanimously by the French parliament and approved by 82 percent of AFP’s staff in an internal vote!

Faced with opposition from our four trade unions—which gleaned a total of 62 percent of votes cast in the recent staff elections, including support from many journalists—plus a 24-hour strike, management has so far dug in its heels. Far from acting as a unifying force, the proposals are disorientating and dividing AFP.

Take for example the Board of Governors meeting last week. The representative of the agency’s technical and administrative staff took on board the views of the opposition movement and voted against both the 2015 budget and the creation of the “technical subsidiary”. Meanwhile the journalists’ representative abstained on the budget vote and voted in favor of the subsidiary. All of the CEO’s projects were approved by the Board by a large majority.

On the same day, the parliamentary bill drafted by lawmaker Michel Françaix on changing AFP’s statutes was approved in committee. This shows that our appeals to lawmakers did not achieve the desired result.

We need a real debate about the options for AFP!

These dangerous projects are advancing in spite of the internal divisions at AFP. However the undersigned trade unions do not intend to give an inch. We’ll step up our efforts to engage and persuade, including in political circles, on the basis of our open letter to French lawmakers (see text below). And we will also call on staff to mobilize in defense of AFP at critical moments.

Paris, 15 December 2014

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December 9, 2014: Don’t let AFP lose its independence!—Four unions publish open letter to French MPs

Members of the French Chamber of Deputies
Members of the Senate,

You are are being asked to consider a bill containing several proposals for modernising the press (Draft member’s law "PPL N°2224"). Among these are proposals that seek to amend Agence France-Presse’s Statutes to make the latter compatible with European competition rules.

Believing that the proposed amendments are far from being "limited changes", and that they would in fact decisively undermine AFP’s 1957 statutes, the CGT, FO, SUD and CFE-CGC trade unions at the agency — which together garnered nearly 62 percent of all votes cast in recent professional elections — ask you to consider their concerns, as follows:

1957: "The Statute of Liberty"

After the Liberation of Paris in 1944, AFP emerged from the war as a public company, but with the 1957 Statute it "ceased to be a state agency to become an independent agency." (According to Albert Bayet, who at the time was the head of the French National Press Federation.) The authors of the Statute of 10 January 1957 intentionally transformed AFP into an "autonomous civil entity", a unique "sui generis" organisation with its statutes enshrined in law. (Also available on this site a: full translation of AFP’s founding statutes). It is neither a public entity nor a private firm, and article 2 of its Statutes specifies that AFP "may under no circumstances take account of influences or considerations liable to compromise the exactitude or the objectivity of the information it provides; it may under no circumstances fall under the control, either de facto or de jure, of any ideological, political or economic grouping".

The 1957 Statute, "a contribution by France to freedom of information" in the words of the agency’s first CEO Jean Marin (The quote is from a speech by Marin before the French Academy of Social and Political Sciences on 29 February 1960) , was the product of a debate lasting several years that was carried out in complete transparency. Marin, who served as CEO from 1957 to 1975, also coined the phrase "Statute of Liberty" to describe the text.

Now, as you are being asked to make changes that would disturb the subtle balance enshrined in the Statute, we’d like to remind you to what extent that document was the result of an overwhelming consensus: approved by 82 percent of the agency’s staff in an internal referendum, it was adopted by the French parliament unanimously; an extremely rare event.

Undermining the Public Interest Mission

Writing much more recently, in 2009, another former CEO, Claude Moisy, described AFP as "a hybrid company which shouldn’t even exist in the world of market economies, but which nevertheless works". (From an op-ed piece published in Le Monde on 30 September 2009, and available (in French only) on our site.

AFP had survived for more than half a century with its original statutes when the European Commission opened a probe in 2010. The Commission subsequently determined that state funds provided to AFP constituted "existing aid" under EU law (that is to say, they came into existence before the coming into force of the Treaty of Rome that founded what would eventually become today’s EU).

This recognition resulted from the fact that AFP staff were able to preserve the spirit of the 1957 Statute despite government plans to reform it in depth. In fact, a minor change in 2011, enacted by parliament with the unanimous support of AFP’s trade unions, simply inserted into the text an explicit reference to public, or "general interest" missions, as already laid down in Articles 1 and 2 of the Statute.

Now, however, the European Commission is insisting that the French government undertake a series of what it calls "appropriate measures" by March 27, 2015. These measures, laid out in the new draft law, are summarized in a letter sent to the French government by Commission Vice President Joaquin Almunia dated 28 October 2014.

Among the provisions of the bill, two are of particular concern to the trade unions who value and defend AFP’s independence:

First, the bill would introduce into the Statute the notion that AFP may undertake activities that fall outside of its Public Interest Mission. The demand from Brussels came in a letter dated 28 March 2014, calling upon "the French authorities to... adopt a normative act which enshrines AFP’s obligation to spin off activities which do not correspond to Articles 1 and 2 of the law of 10 January 1957 into subsidiaries which are legally distinct companies." [Our translation]

This would change the very nature of AFP, destroying the delicate balance struck in the 1957 Statute. From AFP as a Public Interest Mission, or Service of General Economic Interest (tasked with providing "a complete and objective information service") we would move to a situation akin to that of a "private company"; indeed that very phrase already appears in AFP management’s texts.

In this new situation, some of the agency’s activities would be deemed eligible for subsidy by the state as Public Interest Missions, while others would be classified as purely commercial.

In reviewing the exchanges between Paris and Brussels, we were shocked to find that under such a dispensation, AFP’s German-language service would for example no longer be considered part of its Public Interest Mission. The acceptance of such logic could result in AFP being forced in the future to spin off entire swathes of its present activities, and in particular its foreign language services, into subsidiaries.

The planned creation of an investment subsidiary would take the agency in the same direction. According to the latest document provided by management, not only would state investment banks be involved in the new entity, but a "private investor" (who could thereby loan funds against the collateral of AFP assets shifted into the subsidiary). This would result in AFP no longer owning its own equipment, which would become the property of a private bank.

Secondly, the bill would change article 14 of AFP’s 1957 Statute, which shields the agency against the risk of bankruptcy. The proposed change would enshrine the ongoing disengagement of the French state from AFP, and would result in it also considering AFP as a private company governed purely by the provisions of commercial law.

Democratic Deficit

You are being called to vote upon a bill to bring AFP into compliance with EU law. But have you been able to consult the Commission’s exact demands to fully consider their implications for AFP? We were allowed to briefly examine the exchanges between Paris and Brussels, which allowed us to discover many points we consider to be contrary to the Agency’s founding principles.

In the interest of transparency, we have called on AFP management to publish the exchange of letters, in particular the "appropriate measures letter" of 28 March 2014 in which Mr. Joaquín Almunia sets out in detail the Commission’s requirements, while the one sent seven months later merely lists the measures in question. We note that the two reports on AFP by MP Michel Françaix could not take these developments into consideration: his progress report was made in January and his final report in March 2014.

The draft bill would mean acting in unseemly haste to transpose the measures sought by Brussels into law, because to our knowledge no detailed evaluation of their impact on AFP, in particular its independence, has been carried out.

What a stark contrast with the adoption of the 1957 Statute! What haste, what lack of transparency and consensus!

Wouldn’t it be reasonable to ask a parliamentary commission to study the impact of these "appropriate measures" that will change the founding principles of AFP? Why has there been no exploration of other options that would allow AFP to develop within in its Public Interest Mission rather than serving special interests?

Members of the French Chamber of Deputies
Members of the Senate,

  • Don’t take the risk of forcing through a new model that would endanger AFP’s independence, and which a majority of its staff oppose!
  • AFP came into being through an act of political will. It is time to show your political will to defend its independence!

Paris, December 9, 2014
The CGT, FO, SUD and CFE-CGC trade unions at AFP

Among other documents you might wish to consult:

  • The statement by the CGT, FO, SUD and CFE-CGC unions at AFP calling for a 24-hour strike from 4:00 pm on December 10th
  • "The Statute of Liberty": how the law defining AFP’s statutes was adopted in 1956. An extract (French only) from the book "A History of Agence France-Presse, 1944-1990" by Jean Huteau and Bernard Ullmann. Editions Robert Laffont, 1992
  • Jean Waline: a study (French only) of AFP’s statutes published in "La Revue du droit public et de la science politique" in 1964 (PDF document, 1.5 Mb)

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Statement by the CGT, Force Ouvrière, SUD-AFP and CGE-CFC trade unions at AFP

Friday December 5, 2014

  • 24-hour strike from Wednesday 10 December at 1600 Paris time (1400 GMT), by all AFP staff working in France
  • Staff Assembly on Wednesday 10 December at 1400 (1200 GMT) on the first floor editorial hall on rue Vivienne

The CGT, FO, SUD, CFE-CGC trade unions of Agence France-Presse are calling upon all employees working in France to strike for 24 hours beginning at 1600 on Wednesday, 10 December, to defend AFP’s public interest mission and to demand the withdrawal of the following projects underway:

  • The modification of AFP’s 1957 Statute by the Françaix bill to introduce provisions that would allow AFP to conduct activities that do not correspond to its public interest mission. We believe AFP must remain a public interest mission, and nothing but a public interest mission.
  • The amendment of Article 14 of the 1957 Statute which protects AFP against bankruptcy. The amendment proposed in the bill would enshrine the disengagement of the French state and AFP’s status as a private company subject to purely market criteria.
  • The calling into question of employee benefits in the Aims and Means Contract (COM) for 2014-2018. According to our CEO, the COM will define "thresholds AFP agrees to respect in order for its operations to remain sustainable and allow it to finance its investments.” In other words: the salary freeze to continue in 2015 and calling into question our benefits overall.
  • The creation of a "technical" or "investment" subsidiary, the details of which we still do not have, and which change with each statement by the CEO. According to the latest document from the management, financing would come not only from public development banks, but perhaps a private investor who could provide AFP funds if we put all of our computer equipment up as collateral.
  • The policy of dividing AFP’s activities into subsidiaries, which would force the agency to no longer consider its German service as part of its public interest mission. The acceptance of such a policy means entire swathes of AFP’s activities could find themselves placed in subsidiaries, in particular our foreign language services.

In order to protest against these projects, the CGT, FO, SUD, CFE-CGC trade unions call for :

  • A GENERAL STAFF MEETING on Wednesday 10 December at 1400 in the first floor editorial hall on rue Vivenne.
  • A STRIKE by all AFP staff working in France from 1600 on Wednesday 10 December to 1600 on Thursday 11 December.
  • A RALLY by staff in from of the HQ at 1500 (1300 GMT) on Thursday 11 December, as members of AFP’s Board of Governors arrive for a meeting.

Paris, December 5, 2014

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