PARIS — The face of President Emmanuel Macron’s possibly fiercest rival in France’s coming election is not on any campaign poster. He has not given a single speech. His name will not be on the ballot.
He is not a candidate at all, but the man often described as France’s Rupert Murdoch: Vincent Bolloré, the billionaire whose conservative media empire has complicated Mr. Macron’s carefully plotted path to re-election by propelling the far-right candidacy of Éric Zemmour, the biggest star of Mr. Bolloré’s Fox-style news network, CNews.
With the first round of France’s presidential election just a month away, polls show Mr. Macron as the favorite. But it is Mr. Zemmour who has set the themes of the race with the openly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views he had put forth each evening on television for the past couple of years.
“Bolloré’s channels have largely created Zemmour,” François Hollande, France’s former president, said in an interview.
But Mr. Zemmour’s emergence is just the latest example of the power of France’s media tycoons, Mr. Bolloré most prominent among them, to shape political fortunes. In a nation with very strict campaign finance laws, control over the news media has long provided an avenue for the very rich to influence elections.
“If you’re a billionaire, you can’t entirely finance a campaign,” said Julia Cagé, an economist specializing in the media at Sciences Po, “but you can buy a newspaper and put it at the disposal of a campaign.”
In the long run-up to the current campaign, the competition for influence has been especially frenzied, with some of France’s richest men locked in a fight over some of the nation’s top television networks, radio stations and publications.
The emergence of Mr. Bolloré, in particular, has intensified the jockeying in this election season as he buys up media properties and turns them into news outlets pushing a hard right-wing agenda.
The phenomenon is new in the French media landscape, and it has prompted fierce jostling among other billionaires for media holdings. It has been the hidden drama behind the 2022 elections, with some of the media billionaires angling strongly against Mr. Macron, and others in support of him.
On one side are Mr. Bolloré and his media group, Vivendi; on the other are billionaires regarded as Mr. Macron’s allies, including Bernard Arnault, the head of the LVMH luxury empire.
The political reach of media tycoons has become enough of a concern that the French Senate has opened an inquiry. In hearings broadcast live in January and February, they all denied any political motive. Mr. Bolloré said his interests were “purely economic.” Mr. Arnault said his investments in the news media were akin to “patronage.”
But there is little doubt that their media holdings give them leverage that France’s campaign finance laws would otherwise deny them. In France, political TV ads are not allowed in the six months before an election. Corporate donations to candidates are banned.
Personal gifts to a campaign are limited to 4,600 euros, or about $5,000. In this election cycle, presidential candidates cannot spend more than €16.9 million each, or about $18.5 million, on their campaigns for the first round; the two finalists are then limited to a total of €22.5 million each, or about $24.7 million. By comparison, when he was a presidential candidate, Joseph R. Biden Jr. raised more than $1 billion for his 2020 campaign.
“Why do you think that these French capitalists whose names you know buy Le Monde, Les Echos, Le Parisien?” Jean-Michel Baylet, whose family has owned a powerful group of newspapers in southwest France for generations, said in an interview, mentioning some of the country’s biggest newspapers.
“They’re buying influence,” said Mr. Baylet, a former minister of territorial cohesion, who himself has been accused of using his media outlets to advance a parallel career in politics — a charge he denies.
The control of media by industrialists, whose core businesses depend on government contracts in construction or defense, amounts to “a conflict of interests,” said Aurélie Filippetti, who oversaw the media sector as a minister of culture.
Armed with media properties, businessmen enjoy leverage over politicians.
“Politicians are always afraid that newspapers will fall into unfriendly hands,” said Claude Perdriel, the main shareholder of Challenges, a weekly magazine, who said that he made sure to sell his previous outlets, including the magazine L’Obs, to other businessmen who shared his left-leaning politics.
For Mr. Macron, that is what happened when early this year Jérôme Béglé, who is a frequent guest on CNews, took over the Journal du Dimanche, a Sunday newspaper once so pro-Macron that it was called the “Pravda” of the government. After Mr. Bolloré gained control over the newspaper’s parent company last fall, it began publishing critical articles and unflattering photos of Mr. Macron.
It recently zeroed in on what right-wing competitors consider the most vulnerable aspect of Mr. Macron’s record: his crime policy, which the publication referred to as a failure and his “Achilles’ heel.”
Though not widely read, the newspaper enjoys a following among the French political and economic elite and an agenda-setting role. “It’s one of the two or three most influential newspapers,” said Gaspard Gantzer, a presidential spokesman under Mr. Hollande.
One of Mr. Bolloré’s television channels, the youth-oriented C8, has served as a powerful echo chamber for promoting far-right ideas. A recent study by the CNRS, France’s national research organization, showed that from September to December last year, C8’s most popular show devoted 53 percent of its time to the far right and to one figure in particular: Mr. Zemmour.
But it is through CNews, created in 2017 after his takeover of the Canal Plus network, that Mr. Bolloré continues to extend his influence in the final stretches of the campaign. With its ability to shape the national debate around issues like immigration, Islam and crime, CNews quickly grew into a new, and feared, political force in France. It made Mr. Zemmour, a newspaper reporter and best-selling author, a star.
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“We’re obviously quite worried about the editorial line of this type of media,” said Sacha Houlié, a lawmaker and a spokesman for the Macron campaign. “We keep an eye on it.”
According to a study co-written by Ms. Cagé, about 22 percent of the speaking time on CNews was filled by far-right guests during the 2019-2020 season, a 200 percent increase compared with the situation before Mr. Bolloré took over.
But Mr. Macron is not without allies. Two other billionaires — Mr. Arnault, the chief executive of LVMH and France’s richest man; and Xavier Niel, the telecommunications tycoon and the partner of Mr. Arnault’s daughter — have both publicly expressed support for Mr. Macron in the past.
Mr. Niel, Mr. Arnault and Yannick Bolloré, Mr. Bolloré’s son and the chairman of Vivendi’s supervisory board, declined interview requests for this article.
Mr. Arnault owns Les Echos, the country’s leading business newspaper, and Le Parisien, one of its most popular dailies, both of which have been barely critical of Mr. Macron. Mr. Arnault also entered into a confrontation against Mr. Bolloré in a long, drawn-out battle for control over an ailing media group, Lagardère.
Mr. Bolloré eventually won control over Lagardère, and its radio station, Europe 1, was quickly turned into an audio version of CNews.
Wary of Mr. Bolloré’s influence, the Macron government has sought to counter him.
When Mr. Bolloré tried last year to buy M6, a private French television channel owned by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, the government sided with one of Mr. Bolloré’s rivals: Bouygues, the owner of TF1, France’s biggest television channel.
Most government officials expressed support for the deal — except the head of the antitrust authority whose mandate was subsequently not renewed, contrary to expectations. If the merger of TF1 and M6 goes through, it would create a giant controlling 70 percent of France’s television advertising.
Mr. Houlié, the spokesman for the Macron campaign, said that the government’s endorsement of the TF1-M6 deal was intended to create a counterweight to Canal Plus, Mr. Bolloré’s network.
Still, it is Mr. Bolloré who has perhaps had the greatest effect on this season’s campaign.
“He allowed the creation of a Zemmour candidacy,” said Alexis Lévrier, a media historian at the University of Reims, adding that it illustrated the power of media tycoons — which, in this case, has resulted in a candidacy that has pushed talk on Islam and immigration to extremes.
“That,” he said, “makes the script of this campaign fascinating and frightening.”