Open Letter to French MP's: "AFP's Independence is the Basic Condition for its Development" (main extracts)

Dear members of the National Assembly

Dear members of the Senate

Agence France-Presse has been plunged into a new period of expectancy and uncertainty since a recent statement by the Minister for Culture and Communication1 abruptly reopened the extremely sensitive issue of its statutes. AFP is the largest French news media company worldwide.

Addressing the National Assembly's cultural affairs committee on November 4, 2010, M. Frédéric Mitterrand announced that a reform of AFP's statutes would take place "in the near future" via a member's bill to be submitted by a member of parliament. To justify the need for the said reform, M. Mitterrand stated that "one of the issues facing M. Hoog [AFP's chief executive] is to set up a board of governors that will allow AFP to recover the scope for action that it no longer enjoys." He went on to say that AFP "does not have the judicial structure, or the capital means, or the organisational structure that would allow it to confront these challenges." The minister even underlined "the urgency of taking a decision on this issue," and announced that "in the near future we will have a draft member's law that will be submitted either by M. Michel Herbillon or by M. [Jacques] Legendre in the Senate".

M. Mitterrand's statement was all the more surprising given that:

  • The plan on the part of the former CEO, Pierre Louette, to change AFP's statutes in order to turn it into a publicly-owned joint stock company was widely rejected by the agency's staff and greeted with scepticism by members of parliament. On February 24, 2010, M. Louette resigned as chief executive.
  • The "committee of wise men on the future of Agence France-Presse" created by M. Mitterrand and chaired by Henri Pigeat concluded, in a report submitted to the government on April 19, 2010, that it was not necessary to change AFP's statutes.
  • Since he arrived at the head of the agency the new chief executive, Emmanuel Hoog, has stated on many occasions that a change of statutes was not on the agenda.

Our concern is all the greater in that parliamentary hearings on the future of AFP have already begun. We detect a desire to move fast, despite the fact that everything we know (the history of the current statutes, the crucial role played by AFP both in France and worldwide, the complexity of the legal, technological and economic issues raised by the agency's activities) should on the contrary inspire prudence, and a sincere attempt to build as broad a consensus as possible.

To understand what is at stake, it is important to recall that:

  • AFP is subject to a specific act of parliament, its Statutes, aimed at ensuring its independence in the face of all political or economic pressures.
  • The said statutes resulted from a process of reflection over a good fifteen years (the first drafts were written during the wartime Resistance, with a view to planning for the Liberation).
  • The statutes, which oblige AFP to be a worldwide news agency, stipulate that it is not a property (and therefore has no owner), place it outside any capitalistic arrangements (as it has no capital) and provide for it to be run on a cooperative basis (its board is made up of its users - the private media and the government, plus staff representatives).
  • In an extremely rare event, the current statutes were adopted unanimously by the parliament in 1957.
  • Before being submitted to parliament, the current statutes were submitted to the agency's staff, who approved them by a very large majority in a secret ballot.
  • The current statutes constitute a rare legal feat, reposing on fragile but effective checks and balances between the agency's different users (the press and the state). They are based on an implicit understanding which was summed up by Jean Marin, who headed AFP for over 20 years (between 1954 and 1975) in the phrase "AFP can only work if he who pays the piper doesn't call the tune."
  • Although they date from over half a century ago, AFP's statutes have allowed it, despite the major upheavals that have transformed its field of activity on several occasions, to grow, to become a worldwide news agency and to remain one of the leaders in its field. Indeed, AFP is today the only non-Anglo-Saxon worldwide news agency (its two main rivals being the Anglo-British Reuters and the United States' Associated Press). It is also the biggest French-speaking media company and the biggest non-Anglophone media entity in the world; news provided by AFP, in its various working languages, reaches either directly or indirectly some three billion people!
  • Thanks to its statutes, AFP today figures among the top three news agencies worldwide, and is the only one that is completely out of reach of private capital.

Despite all the above facts, and despite our conviction that AFP's current statutes remain, in their overall philosophy, absolutely modern, we consider that those statutes are not a end but rather a means to guarantee the agency's independence. Which is why we are not opposed in principle to all changes to the statutes.

However, to be acceptable, any changes to AFP's statutes must conform to the four following basic conditions:

  1. They must strengthen AFP's independence; in other words they must provide additional guarantees over and above those presently provided, given that a whiff of political influence remains, particularly during the process of electing a new CEO. It is therefore essential that any changes to the statutes should provide stronger barriers to any external power centre with an interest in AFP's enormous impact.
  2. They must be presented hand-in-hand with an authentic company strategy. The said strategy has to be clearly laid out, and any reasons why the current statutes might be an obstacle to its implementation have to be clearly explained. Then, and only then, can the statutes be changed to accommodate the said strategy.
  3. The changes must first be approved by staff in a referendum. This demand is in no way populist or opportunist: AFP is a knowledge-based company, and its know-how and experience are the property of its staff. It is therefore vital for any changes to the statutes to be taken on board and approved by staff. A similar precaution was taken in 1955 vis-à-vis the act that was finally adopted by the parliament in 1957. It would be inconceivable to be less democratic today than we were 55 years ago!
  4. The changes must then be adopted by a very large majority in parliament. If the complete unanimity that greeted the adoption of the statutes in 1957 may today seem out of reach, everything possible should be done to get close to it. AFP is an essential tool of democracy and pluralism. It is of concern not only to the parliamentary majority at any given time, whatever that majority may be, but the French people as a whole.

In fact, an examination of the present situation provides grounds for serious concern on all of the above points:

  1. The plan to change AFP's statutes appears to be dictated from outside the agency [.../...]
  2. At the present time, no strategy exists for AFP [.../...]
  3. AFP staff have not been implicated in the current plan to change the statutes [.../...]
  4. Parliament is apparently divided on the plans [.../...]

..../....

ADIAFP, Tuesday November 16, 2010