De Gaulle and the media (1944-1969)

1944 -1946

Press

In the months that followed the Liberation, General de Gaulle took a series of three important measures:

The founding of Agence France-Presse (AFP), a public corporation covering all interested parties, designed to provide the French and the international press with a French news agency to circulate news from France, independent of the news provided by foreign agencies.

The transfer of assets from national or regional press companies that had collaborated with the enemy to groups of leading Resistance figures. As a result of this move, for example, Le Monde became the successor to Le Temps.

Given the scarcity of resources in the post-war period, a mechanism was set up to ensure fair distribution between newspapers of such vital products as paper. 

Radio broadcasting

This was a period when the state monopoly was further reinforced by the virtual disappearance of small regional radio stations, which were absorbed into the French broadcasting service operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Information.

1958-1969

Press

On his return to power, General de Gaulle made no changes to the press regime as it was left by the Fourth Republic.

The press retained all its previous prerogatives, particularly as regards its tax and postage exemptions, and continued to enjoy total freedom... which it used, for the most part, to express a critical, even hostile, attitude towards the President of the Fifth Republic.

Radio and television broadcasting

When the General returned to power, the national radio service was no more than a division of the Ministry of Information, access to which was wholly dependent on the government. He had had the bitter experience of being notified by the President of the Council in person, on the founding of the RPF, that "naturally" he would no longer be allowed access to the radio: the decision was rigorously upheld since he was given no access to either radio or television until the famous press conference of 19 May 1958 which preceded his return to power. 

Yet the General was as aware as any of the influence of the radio, and clearly perceived the future importance of television which had developed since the beginning of the decade.

He therefore maintained the state monopoly over radio and television, but his view was that the role of these new media should be extended to a far wider-reaching task of inspiring the political, social, cultural and educational life of the nation. They should therefore be distanced from the centre of power and open to all currents of opinion, though continuing to make the necessary provision for explaining government policy to the public.

This was achieved in two stages:

As from 1959, radio and television broadcasting ceased to be a mere ministerial department and became a public authority, with financing provided through a licence fee, the collection (and therefore the amount) of which was to be approved each year by Parliament.

The major reform, however, was that of 1964 when national radio and television broadcasting became a national industrial and commercial enterprise, with an informative, cultural and educational role, as the "Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française " (ORTF), and was given its financial independence.

At the same time, it should be said, a government information co-ordination department, the SDI, was set up within the Ministry of Information, with the task of providing daily briefings on the essential aspects of government action to the broadcasting media and the press.

Contrary to what was too often said at the time, the creation of ORTF nonetheless represented a decisive opening up of television and radio to all the political, spiritual and cultural movements of the day.

Over the same period, some thirty regional stations were launched, corresponding to the main administrative regions of mainland France and the overseas departments and territories, with the aim of bring the news closer to people and promoting the development of local cultures.

These measures were matched by massive technical investments to cover the entire country with enough broadcasting masts to take television to the smallest villages, even in the heart of the mountains.

This series of initiatives was to be completed by the creation of a second TV channel in colour, based on the French SECAM colour process. The international distribution of this process, to which the General attached great importance, would breed fierce rivalry with the German PAL process (a derivative of the American  NTSC system). While most European countries adopted the PAL system, SECAM was adopted by the USSR, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

While national radio and television underwent major development and far-reaching structural reforms under de Gaulle's presidency, at the instigation of the Head of State, no change was made to the system of so-called "peripheral" radio stations: Radio-Luxembourg, Europe n°1, Radio Monte-Carlo and Radio-Andorre.

Only one new radio station was created, Sud-Radio, a subsidiary of the state-owned SOFIRAD (like Radio Monte-Carlo), with a view to providing better coverage of south western France.

For the entire French population from 1940 to 1969, de Gaulle was the man of the radio. The call of 18 June 1940 broadcast over the BBC, the speeches and addresses that followed, from London, Brazzaville or Algiers, were landmarks in the history of the Liberation.

With his superb mastery of the French language, De Gaulle found the radio a perfect instrument. He understood the intimate link that could be created over the airwaves between speaker and audience. Much later, on 14 December 1963, at the inauguration of the Maison de la Radio, he explained the phenomenon: "Radio has made itself the medium of contact with intelligence, sensitivity and desires. In all that it projects that is alive and moving, in its own specific way that is both peremptory and immediate, it is the ideal means of information for our mechanised, huddled and precipitate times".

And while de Gaulle was also the man of the emerging medium of television, a key figure whose press conferences and live broadcasts were followed by millions of French viewers, especially at times of national crisis (January 1960, April 1961), on 30 May 1968, at the height of the events of May and following his return from Germany, he made his address to the nation by radio, and by radio alone: an address which, like that of June 1940, would change the course of history.