From late 2007, French political leaders begin issuing threats against AFP's statutes, which have underpinned its independence since 1957. Open calls for the agency to be privatised spark trade-union mobilisation, leading to the launch of the "SOS-AFP" petition in November 2008.
Over the years, several French governments had sought to change the statutes of Agence France-Presse. In 2000 a project seeking to link the agency to the Vivendi conglomerate, then at the peak of its pre-Internet bubble fame, failed, mainly thanks to opposition from staff.
New storm clouds began to gather after the election of Nicolas Sarkozy to the French presidency in May 2007. M. Sarkozy soon expressed a desire to shake up the country's media landscape.
In December 2007, CEO Pierre Louette sparked concern by announcing on the BFM radio station that he intended to "prepare for a change in the agency’s statutes within the next five years". This brought a strong reaction from the AFP unions [see statement below].
The 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 [fr] 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 [fr]" of AFP, which he described as a "state news agency".
In July 2008 M. 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 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, 2008. 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".
The CGT, SNJ, CFDT, FO and Sud trade unions representing all HQ-status staff categories at AFP have learned with consternation of the statement made today by CEO Pierre Louette on the BFM radio station, announcing his desire to "prepare for a change in the agency’s statutes within the next five years". The statement comes just as a new Ways and Means Contract (COM) with the French government is being negotiated, to cover the period from 2008 to 2012.
Up until now, the CEO had always stated that he did not want to change the company’s statutes.
The change in his position raises fears that the CEO may be obliged to accept just such a change in exchange for a financial commitment by the state within the framework of the COM. We do not want our statutes to be made a hostage to the COM.
The unions have on several occasions questioned management about the content of talks on the upcoming COM contract, without ever obtaining any real information.
Now Pierre Louette has made his intentions perfectly clear, referring to "a change that would allow the agency to fully assure its development, perhaps with a very solid shareholder which remains to be identified, possibly in a European context."
In other words, a possible privatisation of the agency.
We recall the attempts made by a previous CEO, Eric Giuily, to hand AFP over to Jean-Marie Messier’s Vivendi-Universal conglomerate. If that had happened, where would we be today?
Once again AFP staff, along with the trade unions and the Works Committee, have been treated as though they didn’t matter, since the CEO preferred to first announce his intentions to the media.
Faced with this threat to the 1957 statutes, which stipulate that the agency must retain editorial independence, the joint unions have decided to convene for talks.
The unions call on staff to be ready for whatever action may be needed to counter the threat of privatisation.
Joint unions representing all HQ-status staff - Paris, Dec 4, 2007