“Agence France-Presse is one of only a handful of news agencies capable of providing full coverage of world affairs via a truly global network. Supplying text, photos, graphics and video in six main working languages - French, English, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Arabic - it can claim to reach an audience of billions.
“Although its roots go back to the very first international news services in the 1830's, AFP has existed in its present form since January 1957, when the act of parliament defining its statutes came into force. "Le statut de 1957" has allowed the agency to grow into the worldwide presence it is today.
“AFP thus has the distinction of being the only worldwide news agency whose statutes are defined by an act of parliament. Those statutes, which define the company as "an autonomous civil entity functioning under commercial rules", aim to ensure AFP's independence from "any ideological, political or economic grouping", as stated in their emblematic second article.
“For the same reason, the composition of AFP's board is artfully weighted to try and prevent those who pay the piper from "calling the tune", as the agency's historic post-war chief executive, Jean Marin[see footnote], put it.
“Indeed, the new statutes were a welcome change from the situation that had existed since the end of World War II, when the agency had been nationalised in all but name.
“Despite their success, attempts have been made in recent years to completely rewrite AFP's statutes.
“In particular, the administration of President Nicolas Sarkozy has spearheaded two major offensives, both of which have been strongly opposed by the agency's staff and trade unions. In 2009 CEO Pierre Louette agreed to do the government's bidding and proposed to turn AFP into a a joint-stock company wholly owned by the state. His successor Emmanuel Hoog, appointed after M. Louette abruptly resigned on February 24, 2010, has not only proved equally malleable, but has actively pushed for the changes being proposed.
“Like his predecessor, M. Hoog started out in the job by telling staff and the unions that changes to the statutes were "not on the agenda". And like M. Louette, he wasted no time in going back on his word.
“In November 2010, less than nine months after M. Hoog's arrival, the French culture minister told parliament that a new draft law was being drawn up. And indeed, in May this year a senator from President Sarkozy's UMP party introduced a private member's bill deceptively entitled "On the Governance of Agence France-Presse" (in fact, it seeks to change much more than just the structure of the board of governors).
“A strange aspect of the attempts to modify AFP's statutes is that although most of them have gone hand-in-hand with impassioned statements about modernity, technology and the need for an international viewpoint, none have seen any of the key documents whatsoever produced in any language other than French.
“This is particularly surprising given that the latest attempt to rewrite the statutes is being justified, in part, by the supposed need to bring AFP's contractual relationship with the French state into line with European Union law on subsidies.
“As for the 1957 law, hailed by Jean Marin as "the Statute of Liberty", it has as far as we know never been translated into English.
“The present document aims to correct those omissions.”
SUD-AFP, Paris, Monday September 5, 2011
Footnote: Jean Marin helped draw up the 1957 statutes, and served as the agency's chief executive between 1954 and 1975. Describing the statutes, he was quoted as saying: "L'AFP ne peut fonctionner que si celui qui paye ne commande pas", which we have chosen to translate as: "AFP can only work if he who pays the piper does not call the tune."