PARIS — The government has denied newspaper reports and opposition charges that the license for France's first private television station was awarded too cheaply on the basis of political favoritism, but it also has announced a review of the licensing agreement.
The weekly news magazine Le Point, which is considered moderate and independent, reported earlier this week that part of the licensing deal for the so-called "Fifth Channel" called for a first-year license fee of $6.9 million, compared to a fee of about $66 million for public stations.
Le Figaro, an opposition newspaper, called the deal a "scandal" in an editorial. "This privilege is inexplicable outside the political context," Le Figaro said.
Last fall, President Francois Mitterrand awarded the broadcasting rights without public debate, or clear-cut competition, to Italian entrepreneur Silvio Berlusconi, whose French partners are considered close to the president and sympathetic to his Socialist Party.
This week, the government publicly acknowledged that its handling of the contract had been controversial, reversed an earlier decision and announced that the entire licensing agreement, including the fees, would be reviewed by a supervisory commission.
Francois Schoeller, the head of Telediffusion de France, told reporters the fee structure was only provisional. He denied any political favoritism and said financial charges had to be structured differently for public and private broadcasting interests.
Telediffusion de France is a state-owned enterprise that controls all broadcast transmissions.
Television in France until recently has been a state-owned monopoly. Broadcasting has long been used as a tool to promote official policy and support the ruling party.
The private station is scheduled to go on the air Feb. 20, one month before elections for the National Assembly.
Polls indicate that the Socialists are likely to lose their absolute majority in the National Assembly in the March 16 election. Mitterrand's presidential mandate runs through 1988, and he has said he plans to stay in office no matter what the outcome.
Opposition conservatives have alleged that Mitterrand gave Berlusconi the highly sought-after license after receiving assurances that his party and French leftists in general would be allowed to air their views if rightists regained power and purged the state networks of pro-Socialist commentators.
Conservative Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac has vowed to rescind the Berlusconi contract if the right takes power.
Berlusconi's French partners, Christophe Riboud and Jerome Seydoux, are linked to the multinational oil survey company Schlumberger, whose late president, Jean Riboud, was one of Mitterrand's longest and closest associates.
Christophe Riboud is Jean Riboud's son, and Seydoux is an heir to the Schlumberger fortune.
France has three public networks in addition to a pay-TV channel with a state-controlled advertising agency holding a majority of the stock.
When the Socialists won the 1981 election--ending 23 consecutive years of conservative governments--there were wholesale firings of television and radio news commentators considered hostile to the new leaders.
The Socialists, who had campaigned against the politicization of the air waves, quickly established a "high authority" to control broadcasting with, theoretically, no government pressure.