The maverick TV host amping up France’s far right

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One way to understand the political turmoil and tension that have seized today’s France is to watch TV and radio presenter Cyril Hanouna.

The 49-year-old hosts a live show called Touche Pas a Mon Poste! (Don’t Touch My TV Channel!) — a populist cocktail of rowdy, political infotainment that attracts a daily viewership of a few million, and which critics have accused of boosting the far right.

Behind the hit show is Vincent Bolloré, a billionaire media baron who has become a Rupert Murdoch-like figure in France by pushing a conservative agenda across his media assets, including TV channel CNEWS, Sunday paper Journal du Dimanche, and Europe 1 radio.

Hanouna, once a jester-like figure who got his start as a comic, has become the soft power arm of Bolloré’s empire, reaching a younger, working class audience that often does not vote.

Politicians flock to his show to target that population segment in a more informal, unconventional setting than traditional media. 

The show holds up a mirror to French society, and is not all about politics. On an electric blue or bright yellow set, the charismatic Hanouna leads a chorus of commentators and guests who dissect the day’s events, often focusing on what is trending on social media — gory crimes, a crackdown on Muslim-inspired garb at schools, or a celebrity involved in a deadly car crash.   

But when President Emmanuel Macron unexpectedly called snap elections last month, Hanouna pivoted to an all politics-themed, special daily radio show called On marche sur la tête (It’s all gone topsy-turvy).

France’s broadcast regulator soon afterwards issued an official warning for bias: more than half of the 29 politicians interviewed were from the far right, it said, while the left was “systematically treated critically and virulently, often in pejorative and outrageous terms”.

When Jordan Bardella, the far-right Rassemblement National’s party chief, came on, Hanouna asked him softball questions and they chuckled over callers’ questions. In contrast, the host repeatedly interrupted Arthur Delaporte, a socialist running for re-election, criticising him for forming an alliance with the far left.

Hanouna’s TV show, which went on summer hiatus last month, also showcased the far right on its last episode, featuring Sarah Knafo — a politician from Éric Zemmour’s smaller, extreme rightwing Reconquête (Reconquest) party — and Eric Ciotti, the head of the conservative Les Républicains, who had just defected to the far-right Rassemblement National.

Knafo pleaded on air for a coalition among all of them and said it would be up to Bardella to agree to it.

“Let’s call him right now,” said Hanouna, before dialling RN leader Bardella’s number. He did not pick up but Knafo left him a long voicemail about how they have a “unique opportunity” to team up.

Hanouna cracked a joke about Knafo’s long-winded message, but the moment had a serious subtext: the pitch was aimed at forging l’union des droites (union of the right), a long-held dream of Bolloré and an example of how his media outlets promote his worldview.

A devout Catholic and fervent believer in capitalism, Bolloré has transformed CNEWS into a 24-hour opinionated channel with rightwing undertones similar to Fox News.

In a sign of Bolloré’s clout, LR leader Ciotti consulted with him last month before his overture towards the RN, according to Le Monde newspaper. Ciotti appeared on several of Bolloré’s outlets to defend himself as his former party colleagues blasted him as a traitor.  

On Hanouna’s last TV show before summer break, the host asked Ciotti: “So did you negotiate with Bardella to be a minister?” Ciotti gave a long-winded non-answer.

During a parliamentary inquiry into TV licences in March, leftwing senators accused Hanouna of promoting Bolloré’s political agenda and giving disproportionate airtime to far-right politicians. Hanouna and Bolloré denied any bias.

Claire Sécail, an academic who studied Hanouna’s show for a critical book, said the programme had contributed to the polarisation of society by ramping up controversies and encouraging clashes between guests to boost ratings. 

The show “is a populist echo chamber,” said Sécail. “Initially you think Hanouna is a buffoon, but there is a real political project behind the show — that of Vincent Bolloré — that demonises the far left so as to normalise the far right.”

Hanouna denied before the Senate that Bolloré was wielding any influence on his show. “Vincent Bolloré never asked me to invite certain people or to talk about a specific topic. Never!” he said.

Hanouna cast his mission as giving voice to people from varied backgrounds, not just Parisien elites: he said his show had featured women who wear the Muslim veil, a rarity on French TV, along with taxi drivers and crime victims.

Politicians of all stripes were invited on to the show, he said, but many leftists and centrists had refused. 

In 2018, Hanouna was among the first hosts to invite gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protesters on TV, amplifying the amorphous, populist movement that was sparked by a carbon tax on petrol — a controversial policy enacted by Macron. Hanouna initially hosted a wide palette of politicians, including from the far left.

That openness ended in 2022 when Hanouna clashed with Louis Boyard, a former leftwing commentator on his show turned lawmaker for La France Insoumise (LFI), the party of anti-capitalist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

When Boyard insulted Bolloré, claiming the media magnate’s company pillaged resources in Africa, Hanouna retorted that the leftwing MP was a “jerk”, a “shit” and a “loser”.

“I don’t bite the hand that feeds me and neither should you,” Hanouna said, in an apparent reference to Bolloré.

Arcom, the French broadcast regulator, hit the channel with a €3.5mn fine over the incident, saying it harmed Boyard’s reputation and ran counter to the broadcaster’s obligation to control what went out on its airwaves.

Further violations such as giving voice to conspiracy theorists, repeating fake news, and not respecting pluralism have cost Bolloré’s channel a total of €7.5mn.

Comedian Yassine Bellatar, who used to appear on the show and once considered Hanouna a friend, said the clash with Boyard meant far fewer guests were invited from Mélenchon’s party.

“It’s not a show where people give their opinions any more,” said Bellatar. “Cyril Hanouna has become the biggest sponsor of characters on the far right.” 

Bellatar also criticised Hanouna, who is Jewish of Tunisian descent, for “demonising the Muslim community in France” after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, as well as amplifying criticism of LFI for its staunch support for Palestinians.

Hanouna declined to comment. A Vivendi company executive said it was a “total fantasy” to think Hanouna was doing Bolloré’s bidding, adding that “there is no political or ideological project. It’s a business endeavour.” 

Christophe Barbier, a veteran journalist who co-wrote a book with Hanouna, said his show “was a symptom of the democratic malaise that plagues France today, not its cause.”

“French society is no longer infused with the nuanced spirit of Voltaire, Hugo, or Zola,” he said in reference to France’s emblematic philosopher and writers. “It is infused with Hanouna.”

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