PARIS — At the end of the summer vacation season of 1963, President Charles de Gaulle grew more and more irritated by all the depressing images on French television of vacationers heading home during a downpour.
The heavy rains snarled traffic, destroyed crops in farms along the roads for all to see and darkened everyone's mood. In interviews, people fretted about the higher food prices that they expected as soon as they reached home.
France had only one national television channel then, and it was owned and run by the government. De Gaulle fired off a memo to the boss of the station, Minister of Information Alain Peyrefitte, and ordered "a real cleanup of personnel."
"This magnificent instrument for uplifting the public spirit should not be used to poison it," De Gaulle said about television.
No French politician or civil servant has the same kind of power over French television any more. Yet it has taken more than 20 years since that example of De Gaulle's highhandedness for the government to shed its monopoly over television, and only now, after passage of new legislation in August, is its dominance threatened by private television.
Moreover, old attitudes die hard. Even Premier Jacques Chirac, the conservative politician who has done the most to weaken the government's hold on television, could not resist denouncing public television journalists a few months ago for what he described as distortion of the news.
"I wouldn't want the government to be forced to use the procedure of daily official declarations on television to correct excessive or distorted commentaries," Chirac warned. "That would be an absurd little war."
Minister of Culture Francois Leotard, the Cabinet member responsible for television, added in another warning to the journalists, "You cannot hide behind public service to do partisan work."
Channel Sale Expected
In what may or may not have been a coincidence, Chirac then decided that the TF1 channel, whose news reports offended him the most, would be the government channel sold to private business.
The sale of the government channel, expected early next year, should make it clearer than ever before that French television bears little resemblance today to what it was under De Gaulle. But the sale will still leave the future of French television rather confused.
The new law, while authorizing the sale of one of the three government television channels, also cancels the contracts of the owners of two existing private channels and offers them for sale as well. To complicate matters more, Socialists are challenging the law before the French Constitutional Council, which acts as a kind of Supreme Court on constitutional issues.
On top of this, no one is sure how television will change under the French government's elaborate plans to bring cable television to millions of homes and to beam television by special satellite to all parts of Europe.
But critics express the fear that the government, instead of striking a balance between public and commercial television, will ensure a dominant place for the latter.
"Commercial television will impose its law very quickly," said Jack Lang, Socialist member of Parliament and former minister of culture. "Programming will be set by a dictatorship of the audience and of established stars that will leave no room for new talents, for new adventures in creation."
For years, while they were out of power, the Socialists complained of government interference in television and promised to break the monopoly if elected. The most blatant example of the heavy hand of French right-wing governments was the dismissal of more than 60 journalists in retaliation for their protest against public television's near-blackout of the student riots on the streets of Paris in 1968.
But, once in power in 1981, the Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand turned out to be just as political as its predecessors. Officials dismissed directors, news editors and news show anchors as too conservative for new leftist tastes.
Mitterrand finally broke the government monopoly at the end of last year--just a few months before his Socialist Party lost control of the National Assembly to Chirac and other conservatives--by awarding contracts to private companies to create two new channels, one for rock music, the other for regular programming.
But angry critics denounced the contracts as rewards to old leftist friends.
Channel 5, the private channel for regular programming, aroused the most controversy. Its owners were Italian industrialist Silvio Berlusconi and French businessmen close to Mitterrand and the Socialist Party.
Many French were incensed at the involvement of Berlusconi, a Socialist who is scorned by intellectuals throughout Europe for creating a private Italian television system that, although immensely popular, is widely regarded as mediocre. He was derided as "the pope of tele-pizzeria" in the French press.