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French News Channel, Referred To As French Fox News, Gains In Popularity

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In France, a news channel that sometimes plays up fears and conspiracy theories is becoming more popular. It's accused of pushing a far-right agenda and throwing fuel on France's culture wars. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports on what is sometimes called the French Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNEWS BROADCAST)

ERIC ZEMMOUR: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Eric Zemmour is the star of CNews. The far-right commentator is an adept debater with deep historical knowledge. But his incendiary anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant diatribes have earned him hate speech condemnations from France's audiovisual authority and French courts. Last September, he launched into unaccompanied young migrants

(SOUNDBITE OF CNEWS BROADCAST)

ZEMMOUR: (Through interpreter) They're thieves, assassins, rapists. That's it. We have to send them back, every one of them. They should not be here.

BEARDSLEY: After a previous offense in 2018, Zemmour was fined and fired. But then CNews rehired him. That's significant, says sociologist Eric Fassin.

ERIC FASSIN: CNews knows that racist speech and incendiary speech sells. And this ultraright buzz, I think, is today how it works in the media in France, just like it worked and has worked in the U.S. for many years.

BEARDSLEY: CNews is owned by French billionaire Vincent Bollore, who Fassin calls the French Rupert Murdoch. Bollore's formula for success is financial as well as political. He has slashed costs by cutting back on reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Talk shows, confrontational debates and opinionated commentary now dominate the channel.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Critics say the constant focus on crime, immigration, Islam and terrorism paint a frightening and inaccurate picture of France. And it's a winning formula, says media analyst David Medioni.

DAVID MEDIONI: (Through interpreter) It's always easy to get good ratings with fear, resentment, conspiracy theories and anger at the government. And it feeds off social media.

BEARDSLEY: This month, for the first time ever, CNews beat the other news channels in the ratings. Francois Jost of the Sorbonne Nouvelle University says CNews is reaching a new audience.

FRANCOIS JOST: (Through interpreter) The extreme right has long considered the media as left wing, Parisian intellectuals who don't understand the heartland. So there is a huge pool of potential viewers for CNews, like people from the Yellow Vest movement who view CNews as a media that represents them.

BEARDSLEY: Polls show voters are likely to choose far-right leader Marine Le Pen as President Macron's principal opponent next May. And he's been moving to the right to try to head her off. Sociologist Fassin says Le Pen's ideas are redefining the political and media landscape.

FASSIN: The media, hand in hand with politicians, are driving society in that direction by insisting that what people really care about is Islam, not the pandemic, not unemployment. What people really care about is issues of national identity.

BEARDSLEY: Fassin says what Fox News did for Trump, CNews could do for Le Pen.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "HIGH SUNSET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.