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France’s National Assembly voted on Saturday to approve a government bill that scraps a TV license fee financing nearly 85% of the annual budgets of French public broadcasters. These comprise France Televisions, France 24, Arte and Radio France, among others.
The bill was put forward by newly reelected President Emmanuel Macron during his campaign as part of several measures aimed at “increasing the buying power of French households.”
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Under the amendments passed by the National Assembly with 170 votes to 57, public broadcasting will now be financed by a “fraction” of the VAT, which will amount to €3.7 billion ($3.8 billion), according to the news outlet RFI.
The license fee, which was created 70 years ago to help fund French public radio and TV channels, applied to each household that owned a TV set and cost €138 per year. It brought in approximately between €3.2 billion and €3.5 billion per year and financed most of the services of Radio France and France Televisions (which is comprised of five national channels and many more regional ones), as well as their programming slates, commissioned content and workforce of about 110,000 people.
While on paper the amount of funding will remain about the same, the origin of the funding is at the heart of the issue. Many in France are concerned that broadcasters will now rely on a government grant from VAT receipts instead of a tax levied on households. They also fear that the amount could be cut in times of economic crisis or if a far-right candidate is elected as president. This means broadcasters could end up relying more on advertising and could also be more vulnerable to pressures from high-profile government figures, according to several industry figures.
On June 28, thousands of staffers from French broadcasters went on strike to protest the proposed bill before it was presented to the council of ministers on July 6. It was considered to be the biggest strike in the last 30 years. Flagship programs such as morning news show “Telematin” didn’t air a new episode for the first time in three decades, along with “Complement d’Enquête” and a flurry of others.
Interviewed by Variety, many journalist protesters said they were highly concerned that the elimination of the license fee would weaken their editorial independence and put them at the mercy of the government.
The move to phase out the license fee has been mainly supported by politicians who belong to the center, right wing and far right parties, while politicians from the left wing have voted against it and argued that it reflects Macron’s efforts to dismantle public broadcasters in France.
Rima Abdul-Malak, who was recently appointed culture minister, said that “it is not the licence fee that guarantees independence” but the org known as Arcom (ex-CSA), which appoints the heads of pubcasters.
When interviewed by Variety last month, Tristan Waleckx, a well-respected TV reporter working for “Complement d’Enquête,” said he and fellow journalists worry that they will have to “renegotiate this budget each year, or every two years,” and will be at the mercy of future governments.
Many like Waleckx had hoped the government would look at the funding mechanisms in other countries such as Norway, where the TV license fee has been replaced by a tax levied on people’s income.
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