In one of the most eventful periods in recent memory, France’s most respected radio shows are broadcasting “oldies” instead of the news.
For two weeks, technicians, ancillary staff and a few journalists at Radio France – the equivalent of BBC Radio – have been on strike against spending cuts. After a break-down of negotiations over the weekend, there will be at least another week without normal programming.
According to management, the proportion of the staff on strike has rarely exceeded 7 per cent. Nonetheless, French public radio – two news and current-affairs channels, a culture channel, a classical music channel, two pop-music stations and dozens of local stations – has been severely disrupted. On Friday, the main journalists’ union joined in for the first time. At issue, according to the management and the government, are the savings needed to plug a €21.3m (£15.5m) deficit in Radio France’s books this year – the first losses in its 40-year history. If nothing is done, they say, Radio France will be losing €280m a year by 2019.
The real issue, according to the unions, is the survival of public radio in the face of an unjustified spending freeze imposed by successive governments of the right and left since 2012. The Radio France saga is a microcosm of the saga of France. All specific reforms are bitterly contested. Does Radio France need two separate symphony orchestras of international renown and two classical choral ensembles? They cost €60m a year, almost one-10th of the organisation’s whole budget. They earn €2m.
A young man with a background in commercial broadcasting and government, Mathieu Gallet, 38, was appointed to head Radio France last year with a brief to retune it for the 21st century. Above all, he was supposed to cut costs while preserving quality and independence. It emerged last month that he had spent €100,000 on redecorating his private office on an upper floor of Radio France’s circular headquarters, which was built in 1963 beside the river Seine.
This iconic but impractical building – la maison ronde – is one of Radio France’s biggest problems. Reconstruction began in 2003, partly to strip its asbestos. The work was supposed to cost €175m. It is now forecast to cost €584m. The main opposition centre-right party led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy would like to blame the crisis on the incompetence of the Hollande administration. Mr Gallet was, however, a senior ministerial adviser during the Sarkozy years.
The squeeze on the state-funding of Radio France began before François Hollande defeated Mr Sarkozy in 2012. Hubert Huertas, former head of the Radio France branch of the journalists’ union, rejects suggestions that public radio has become too expensive. “[Radio France] costs each person in France €10 a year – that is 80 centimes a month,” he said. “The €20m deficit causing such public anguish is one-fifth of what Paris Saint‑Germain [football club] pays each year for [its striker] Zlatan Ibrahimovic.”
A senior Radio France broadcaster told The Independent: “Everyone – or almost everyone – accepts that changes have to come and jobs will be lost. There could and should have been sensible negotiations but poor handling by the government and stupid decisions by Mathieu Gallet have now scared people and handed the initiative to the union hardliners.”
On Friday, most Radio France unions voted on a motion demanding Mr Gallet’s resignation. Only the main journalists’ union dissented. On the same day, the Culture Minister, Fleur Pellerin, made a statement guaranteeing the quality and independence of Radio France.