How and Why: All About the Petition

, by Admin

Petition: "A written document signed by a large number of people demanding some form of action from a government or other authority." - Collins English Dictionary.

The How...

The French "Robert" dictionary also notes that a petition generally relates to "an issue of general interest". The document you are invited to sign here corresponds exactly to that definition, because the "complete and objective information service" that must be "exact, impartial and trustworthy" as specified in the founding statutes of Agence France-Presse is indeed a question of interest to us all.

And our petition will indeed be addressed to "a government or other authority" because at the end of our campaign - either when the projet to change our company’s 1957 statutes is brought before the French Parliament for a vote, or when the government and AFP management decide to drop the whole plan - the complete list of signatures will be printed out and delivered to the National Assembly.

In other words, unlike many "electronic petitions" currently going the rounds on the Internet, our initiative is not solely aimed at displaying a list of names on a web site. Which is not to say that the latter does not have its uses: our web pages help keep the issue in the public eye, which is why we strongly encourage you to authorise the display of your name and other public details for the duration of our campaign.

NB: Our petition has been closed to new signatures since April 20, 2012. To find out why, read our statement

Ensuring Credibility

Online petitions in general do not have a very good reputation. The ease with which they can be signed leads to accusations of "press-button activism", not to speak of fraud when it becomes possible to sabotage them by adding made-up or otherwise fictitious names. The tendency of many organisers to simply content themselves with the display of a list of names on a web site is also harmful to their credibility.

We have tried to overcome these obstacles in several ways:

  • By undertaking to deliver a physical list of signatories, on paper, to clearly identified recipients - in this case the French parliament and AFP’s management
  • By catering for signatures provided both on paper and via the web, with the complete list of signatories brought together in a single document at the time of delivery
  • By actively working to ensure the authenticity of our signatures: eliminating those which are obviously fraudulent and checking, as far as is possible, the verisimilitude of the others.
  • By offering signatories (as of the opening of the current site, in late March) the option of not having their names published on the web but only included on the printed lists handed in at the end of the campaign.
  • By providing, as far as is possible, an "after-sales service": replying to the e-mails of would-be signatories and modifying or deleting signatures on request, as laid down in the French "Computer Data and Freedom Act" of January 6, 1978

...and Why

Over the years, several French governments have sought to change the statutes of Agence France-Presse. In 2000 a project seeking to link the agency to Vivendi, then at the peak of its "pre-Internet bubble" fame, failed, mainly thanks to opposition from staff.

The current offensive began to pick up speed in 2008, when AFP came under fierce attack from several leading members of the Union for a Popular Majority (UMP), the dominant party under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. In May the UMP’s main spokesman, Frédéric Lefebvre, accused the agency of failing to quote all of the statements he was putting out about a lawsuit aimed at Ségolène Royal, M. Sarkozy’s unsuccessful rival in the 2007 election. M. Lefebvre made a formal complaint on the question to AFP’s Higher Council, a watchdog body.

Reacting to the UMP complaint, CEO Pierre Louette noted that our company’s vocation was not to "become a machine for broadcasting statements", while the president of the AFP Society of Journalists, Christophe Beaudufe, explained that the agency "is not a blog on which political or business leaders can post statements as and when they wish". The UMP’s complaint to the Higher Council was thrown out.

Also in May 2008 another UMP Member of Parliament, Claude Goasguen, stated his "ardent desire for a privatisation " of AFP, which he described as a "state news agency".

In July 2008 CEO Pierre Louette, who two years before had stated that it was "not my vocation to change the company’s statutes" and that that latter "have not prevented it from selling its products around the world, and from becoming probably the number-one general news agency in Asia and the Middle East", did a sudden about-face and announced the need to "spruce up" the statutes. Among other changes he mentioned extending the CEO’s term of office from three to five years, and the ending of the rule requiring AFP to always present its balanced annual budget. The joint unions reacted by stating that "In the current political and economic situation in France, these proposals to make minor changes to the statutes run the risk of opening the door to serious, major changes."

In September the government published the Giazzi Report, commissioned as part of a "States-General" conference on the French press convened by President Nicolas Sarkozy. Among its proposals was, "the transformation of AFP into a joint-stock company (société anonyme), to allow it to own both capital and equity." (In the event, the "States-General" process did not discuss AFP, but the report caused considerable concern among staff).

Then the following month the government officially announced, through one of its representatives on the AFP board, that M. Louette was "mandated" to propose changes to the statutes which would notably "provide the agency with a stable shareholder base" and "boost its stature on the international and European levels".

That announcement, coming on the heels of the acerbic attacks made on the agency by government figures, sparked major anxiety among staff. The joint unions launched the "SOS-AFP" petition on November 27. It calls on signatories to "reject any change which would have the effect of either turning AFP into a government agency, or handing it over either wholly or partially to private companies of any type and in whatever form".