Strike at Radio France hits its third week

Radio France enters today into its 21st day of consecutive strike action. This is a record length, with no precedent established in Radio France’s 40 year history. The majority of employes on strike are technicians, although some journalists have also chosen to strike.

The French state is the unique shareholder in Radio France, and although it doesn’t officially name its Director General, Radio France is under its ‘tutelle’, which means that Radio France is essentially a ward of the government. Radio France operates seven networks, which, although bastions of French journalism and culture, have steadily been loosing listeners over the years. Radio France also has a large deficit, which could reach up to €50m in 2019, and which the government has ordered it to reduce by 2017. A recent BBC article, written by Hugh Schofield, pointed out that between 2004 to 2013, spending went up by 27.5% at Radio France, even though there was no rise in audience.

This strike by Radio France’s employes is the result of two different controversial issues. The first is the austerity measures recently announced by the Director General, Mathieu Gallet, which include the disbanding of one of the two orchestras housed by Radio France, and about 380 proposed redundancies. The other issue was first reported on by Le Canard Enchainé, which is the French equivalent of Private Eye. Gallet has recently had his office renovated, the cost of which is rumoured to be at €105,000 (which Gallet insists had already been incorporated into last year’s budget), all fronted by the tax payer, and which has suscited fury at Radio France, given that at the sale time he is proposing austerity measures. He is also supposed to have recently hired an image consultant at the cost of €90,000.

The relationship between Gallet, Radio France’s employes, and the unions is currently extremely frosty. The unions have accused Gallet of using Radio France’s audio platforms to publicly address the controversy surrounding his office and the proposed austerity measures, but of refusing to directly engage in negotiations with them.

The unions have asked the Minister for Culture, Fleur Pellerin, to act as a mediator between Gallet and Radio France, but so far, apart from giving her opinion that although it was crucial that Gallet re-establish a dialogue with the unions, she believed him capable of resolving the situation, Pellerin has been reluctant to wade into the debate. According to Le Monde, this is because the government is very wary of being accused of intervening too much into the affairs of what is supposed to be an independent broadcaster (despite the fact that it is wholly owned by the French State).

The Director General of Radio France is appointed by the Conseil Supérieur Audiovisuel,which is a regulatory body that is supposedly independent from the State. The unions have also asked it to intervene, but it has declined to do so, saying that that didn’t fall under its mandate of responsibilities, and pushing the onus onto the government to act as mediator.

Gallet is unusual in many ways as the Director General of Radio France. Firstly, he is only 37 years old, and secondly, he didn’t go to the École Nationale d’Administration, the grande école which produces most of the Director Generals at companies where the State owns or holds most of the shares. Many have said that the shake ups that he is proposing at Radio France are no surprise, as he was employed by the Minister of Culture under Nicolas Sarkozy, that famous hardliner.

The reluctance on the part of the government to get too involved may also stem from the fact that some reforms are, for the most part, probably inevitable. As Hugh Schofield, the BBC’s Paris correspondent put it, the danger of this three week strike is that in an age of 24 hour news channels, listeners may massively defect to Radio France’s private competitors.