Anti-fake news law’: Macron’s impossible challenge?
In his new year’s speech to journalists at the Élysées Palais, President of France Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to enforce a new law by the end of 2018 to fight the spread of ‘fake news’. This announcement raised some eyebrows, and obvious concerns, among the 400 domestic and foreign journalists present. Macron’s resolute wish to implement quickly this anti-fake news law can be seen as a result of the #macronleaks controversy that sought to undermine his electoral campaign in May 2017. Personally attacked by this 9 gigabyte leak consisting of tens of thousands of emails and photos hacked from ‘La République En Marche’, Macron decided upon a ‘strike hard’ approach “to end these lies aimed at tainting” politician’s reputation.
According to Macron, the rise of fake news and conspiracy stories is a consequence of “illiberal democracies” financing this type of ‘misinformation’ media outlets. This law would help in identifying the authors of the fake news and in banning the content, especially sponsored content on social media sites such as Facebook. Additionally, it would take a step further by allowing a judge to remove content or even block sites during electoral time within 48 hours. France’s media ‘watchdog’, the CSA (Audiovisual Media Regulatory Authority) would also be given the power to fight against “any attempts of destabilization” by TV stations influenced by foreign states. However, in order to protect the freedom of the press, Macron had promised that no actions of the CSA would be taken without asking journalist’s opinions. Without naming it, Macron refers specifically to RT (former Russia Today) that he accuses of spreading misinformation about him during the presidential campaign following a “hybrid strategy combining military intimidation and information war”. Macron’s relationship with the Russian media, in particular RT and Sputnik, has been increasingly conflictual. During President Putin’s visit in Versailles after his election, Macron declared: “When media outlets spread slanderous falsehood, they are no longer journalists”. Macron blames openly RT for spreading rumors regarding his alleged Bahamas bank account in May 2017, rumor used by Marine Le Pen against him during the last presidential televised debate. As a result, journalists from RT and Sputnik were refused accreditation during the presidential campaign and no Russian journalists were invited during his new year’s speech. RT France responded to this exclusion with a 25 minutes special edition reminding that the TV channel has been authorized by the CSA and that the majority of its employees have the status of professional journalists.
The reactions to this new anti-fake news law came quickly from politicians of various political hues, from the traditional and far-right, to the traditional and far-left, in a rarely seen consensus. Marine Le Pen from the ‘Front National’ wondered on Twitter: “Is France still a democracy if it muzzles its citizens?” and “Who will decide if a piece of news is fake? Judges? The government?”. Alexis Corbière, spokesman of the far-left coalition ‘La France Insoumise’ (‘Unsubmissive France’), used a very similar rhetoric to criticise Macron’s proposal: “What is ‘fake news’, how do we stop it, what are we exactly talking about here? I’m afraid that there’s an attempt to muzzle”. On their side, social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, cautiously refused to comment on Macron’s project while stressing their continous efforts in the battle against fake news. French social media users also reacted with the hashtag #InventeDesFakeNews (#inventFakeNews) and unsurprisingly, right wing counter media sites covered and criticised heavily the idea of an anti fake news law: “totalitarism” for Alter Info and “dictature” for Riposte Laïque.
After an intense but short-lived polemic followed by several months of silence, the law was finally discussed by the French Assembly during the night of July 3-4 2018 after a long and disputed 8 hours debate. Two propositions were then voted despite the opposition of the three left wing groups and the ‘Front National’. However, this was only the first step and the Senate rejected the law on July 26 (288 against 31), without even debating it, arguing the lack of “efficacy of the proposal” and “the disportionate risks to the freedom of speech”. Senator Catherine Morin-Desailly called the law “inefficient, unfinished and dangerous” and the National Union of Journalist (SNJ) saluted the “vigilance” of the Senate. But despite this setback, Macron and his government are still hoping for the law to come into effect before the European elections of May 2019, though most politicians and journalists consider this a futile attempt to enforce a law that cannot be technically implemented. Could a judge really decide in 48 hours whether a news is ‘fake’ or ‘not fake’, whether an article is based on ‘lies’ or ‘truth’, whether a Facebook page relays ‘proper journalist content’ or ‘propaganda’, whether a politician expresses a ‘free democratic opinion’ or aims at ‘tarnishing the reputation of an opponent’?
Macron’s affirmation that this law will protect democracy is refuted by journalists themselves who in vast majority view these attempts to control ‘fake news’ as a danger to the freedom of speech. Ill-advised enforcement of this kind of law could have the reverse effect and prevent many journalists, politicians but also citizens at large from expressing divergent opinions and views. Facing such a resistance front, the representatives of ‘ La République en Marche’ look very isolated at the moment and it seems more and more unlikely that this anti-fake news law will ever be voted and implemented. Despite his pugnacity, the Jupiterian president might not be able to impose his own way of “protecting democracy” against “propaganda” and “conspiracy” this time.
Gwenaëlle Bauvois (PhD) is a lecturer in Ethnic relations at the center for Research in Ethnic relations and Nationalism (CEREN) at the Swedish School of Social Science).