Dear Catherine Morin-Desailly, Chair of the Committee on Culture, Education and Communication,
Mr Rapporteur, dear Michel Laugier,
Ladies and gentlemen senators,
There is no democracy without a free press.
This is not new.
In his address to the Constituent Assembly on September 11, 1848, Victor Hugo argued that freedom of the press is “no less sacred, no less essential than universal suffrage.”
“The day when [...] we would see the freedom of the press diminishing [...],” he added, “would be in France, would be in Europe, would be the effect of an extinguished torch in the whole civilization!”
This torch, we cannot let it die.
And we won’t let it go out.
If we want to keep it burning, we must rekindle its flame.
If we want to protect the press and its freedom, we must modernize its distribution.
That’s the whole purpose of the bill you’re dealing with today.
The “Bichet Law” of 1947 has often been described, including in your Chamber, as “an icon of the Republic”.
In the turbulent post-war context, it had made it possible to guarantee the effectiveness of the constitutional principle of pluralism of thought and opinion.
As the Constitutional Council affirmed in 1984, the free communication of thoughts and opinions can only be effective if the public is able to have a sufficient number of publications of different tendencies and characters.
This means that all political and general information newspapers are available throughout the country.
It is a condition of the effectiveness of press freedom.
Today, the objectives of the Bichet law remain: to guarantee plurality of information and equality between publishers, regardless of their size or the opinions they convey.
And digital issues make this law even more necessary.
On the one hand, because digital broadcasting presents the same challenges with regard to the objectives of pluralism. That is why the bill before you provides for the extension of the fundamental principles of the Bichet Act to digital broadcasting.
On the other hand, because I strongly believe in the future of the paper press, its anchorage in our territories, its usefulness for democratic debate. The sector is now facing major upheavals: between 2007 and 2017, more than 1,000 press publishers saw their sales volumes decrease by 54%; more than 6,000 outlets closed between 2011 and 2018, in large cities but also in medium-sized towns or municipalities.
And you know the recurrent economic difficulties encountered by the company Presstalis, which now distributes all the national daily newspapers.
The company benefited from a continuation plan approved in March 2018 by the Commercial Court, to which the State contributed by a loan of €90 million.
This year it will post negative equity of €400 million.
This situation makes it essential to adapt the Bichet law.
If she’s an icon of the Republic, she can’t be a totem pole.
Only if it is modernized will it be able to continue to fulfil its democratic objectives.
Modernising press distribution without breaking the current system is our delicate task.
Delicate, because it is not easy to modify a text so old, so symbolic.
Delicate, because for more than 70 years a complex system has been built on this text: a system in which the interests of all the actors are intimately intertwined, but a system that could also cause certain excesses, and which clearly demonstrated its limits.
I believe that the project presented by the Government manages to solve this equation.
Because it is the result of a long, in-depth work conducted in constant consultation with the entire sector. Because it is a balanced text that protects the integrity of press distribution.
And because it helps to preserve: the diversity of publications, guaranteeing the expression of the plurality of opinions, a service of proximity, throughout the national territory, and especially in rural areas, and the future of an industry and professionals who are facing difficulties today.
Yes, this bill preserves the essential principles of the Bichet Law; the foundation on which our distribution network was built.
It preserves the mandatory cooperative principle, to which the main players in the sector are very attached, who see it as a strong guarantee of equal treatment between all publishers.
It preserves the absolute right to the distribution of all political and general information titles, which will remain free to choose the points of sale where their titles are distributed and the quantities served.
It preserves a system allowing access to a wide variety of publications throughout the country.
Because if France offers the greatest number of titles in Europe, it is thanks to the law of 1947.
Thanks to the Bichet Act.
There are, however, a number of difficulties with the legislation as it is currently drafted, which we have learned from the many reports and analyses that have been conducted over the past decade or more.
First of all, the mandatory majority ownership of the capital of couriers by publishers effectively places the latter – both customers and shareholders – in structural situations of conflict of interest.
Secondly, while they play the essential role of commercial interface with the customer reader, newspaper merchants today have no control over the type of publications they receive, nor over the quantities of copies delivered.
We need to give real leeway to these key players in the sector and their ability to adapt to market realities.
Finally, the regulatory bodies in the sector have too limited powers and resources.
Without questioning the quality of the work done by the teams of the Conseil Supérieur des messageries de presse and the Autorité de régulation de la distribution de la presse – to which I would like to pay tribute, for their constant commitment to support the modernization of the sector, in often complicated situations – regulation is not sufficiently adapted to effectively support the modernization of the sector and ensure its sustainability.
The project before you aims to remedy these important dysfunctions, without calling into question the essential principles I mentioned earlier.
It proposes a real modernization of the legislative framework, with modalities and a timetable to accompany the transition.
This modernization has five points:
- First, the bill proposes to entrust the regulation of the sector to ARCEP, the competent and legitimate authority for economic regulation, by giving it strong powers of intervention, in particular with regard to the approval of schedules, and by entrusting him with a power of sanction which the CSMP and the ARDP were lacking.
- Secondly, the end of the majority capital ownership of couriers by publishers' cooperatives should allow new perspectives in terms of industrial strategies for current players. It will also have the medium-term effect of authorizing, where appropriate, other players to offer a press distribution service, provided that they are approved by ARCEP on the basis of strict specifications established by decree. However, the possibility for ARCEP to issue approvals to players other than the two current carriers will only be possible after a transition phase. Indeed, the bill authorizes the Government to defer until 1er January 2023 the publication of the specifications defining the conditions of the approval. And the Government intends to use all this leeway, in order to give current actors a reasonable time to adapt.
- Thirdly – and this is of particular importance in our territories – the text provides for more flexibility for newspaper dealers in the choice of titles they distribute, outside the political and general press. This essential axis of modernization must make it possible to improve their commercial attractiveness and to offer an offer more adapted to the expectations of readers in our regions, our departments and our municipalities. Newspaper dealers will find a new lease on life, which will only strengthen the attractiveness of a profession that is now weakened by difficult working conditions.
- Fourth—and this is the whole point of a modern text, adapted to the reality of the practices of our fellow citizens—the bill extends the principles of the Bichet Act to digital broadcasting: on the one hand, by providing a right of access to digital kiosks for publishers of political and general information titles, and, on the other hand, by imposing transparency obligations on online information aggregators about their choices of "highlighting" the information content they offer and how they use our personal data.
- Finally, the bill we have introduced gives ARCEP the task of drawing up a guide to press distribution. This orientation plan should integrate the role played by regional press depositaries, in a logic of accompanying the transition.
These major axes offer, I believe, a balanced framework to the indispensable evolution of the current system of distribution of the press to the issue, whose sustainability is essential for the economic balance of the entire industry.
The adaptation of the VCP’s status to the challenges of multi-title porting, also proposed by the bill, and much awaited by the portage networks, particularly the PQR, will also strengthen the distribution of the press throughout the territory.
This bill is part of a broader framework: that of the Government’s policy in favour of the press.
The copyright directive, adopted on 15 April by the European institutions, provides for the creation of a neighbouring right for news publishers and news agencies.
It is already being transposed.
On the report of Senator David Assouline, whom I thank very much for the quality of the work done on this subject, you adopted a transposition bill at first reading.
It was also adopted by the National Assembly a few days ago on the report of MP Patrick Mignola.
We are the first European country to implement it.
It is the guarantee for publishers and news agencies to finally benefit from revenues for the exploitation of their articles by digital platforms.
In addition, the main publishers of the political and general press have presented to the Minister of Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire and myself, a “business plan” to better support the modernization of the sector.
This plan is currently being studied by our services, and will contribute to our reflections.
Finally, the Government’s support for the press is largely based on a system of aid to the press: aid for physical distribution: portage, postal transport and number distribution; aid for pluralism for titles with low advertising resources; but also aid for modernisation, emergence and local media.
All of these are essential to the vitality of our democratic debate and to our fellow citizens' access to reliable and diversified information.
Ladies and gentlemen senators,
Together, we are writing a new page in the history of print media.
Together, we are building the future of this sector.
To build it, we will not start from scratch.
We will start from the indispensable achievements of the Bichet law.
That is the whole purpose of the bill before you today.
I want to thank all the players in the sector for their direct and indirect contribution to this text.
And thank you, Senators, Senators.
I would like to welcome the constructive and cross-party spirit that you are showing – under your guidance, Mr Rapporteur – on this text and on the other work that we are doing together, especially the President of the Committee on Culture, of Education and Communication, Catherine Morin-Desailly.
We will evolve the platform accountability regime, Madam Speaker: rest assured.
The copyright directive is a first step in this direction. And we will not stop there. I would like us to be able to take the renegotiation of the e-commerce directive to the new European Commission, which unfortunately now hinders our desire to make platforms accountable. Other European states are ready to fight with us.
I would also like to commend the fruitful debates and the in-depth work carried out by the Committee on Culture, Education and Communication, which have led to significant improvements in the original text. It has been extremely helpful.
I am thinking in particular of the amendment which provides that the Commission of the Network must obtain the opinion of the Mayor for the decisions on the location of sales outlets, Mr Rapporteur, dear Michel Laugier.
I am also thinking of the amendment that introduces a right of first presentation to newspaper dealers for titles outside IPG, Mr. Vice-President, dear Jean-Pierre Leleux. I also know that Senator Gatollin has tabled an amendment, which you will consider later, to provide some useful clarification on the implementation of this principle. To the amendments that clarified the role of ARCEP on assortment, Senator Lafon, including during the transitional period, Madam Vice-Chair, dear Françoise Laborde.
Other amendments have clarified the details of the reform and made it easier to fully understand its objectives.
With these clarifications, you have strengthened the legibility of the initial text in order to remove any risk of ambiguity in the interpretation of the provisions.
You have answered the concerns of certain stakeholders.
The resulting text is significantly improved.
Ladies and gentlemen senators,
As I am asked to defend four pieces of legislation before Parliament at the same time, I am sensitive to your mobilization.
You show that there are causes capable of bringing us together, of federating us; causes that deserve to exceed our partisan commitments.
The defence of pluralism is one of those.