A French PR lesson - French spin doctor Manuel Valls, like his UK counterpart Alastair Campbell, has helped to create a highly popular politician. Unlike Campbell, he has achieved this by maintaining a low media profile. Sophie Barker investigates

One year on from his election as French prime minister opinion polls suggest Socialist Lionel Jospin may merit the title of the country’s most popular premier in 20 years. A comfortable majority - 70 per cent -of the French public approves of his achievements so far according to a survey published this month by Le Point - a weekly current affairs magazine with traditionally right-wing leanings.

One year on from his election as French prime minister opinion

polls suggest Socialist Lionel Jospin may merit the title of the

country’s most popular premier in 20 years. A comfortable majority - 70

per cent -of the French public approves of his achievements so far

according to a survey published this month by Le Point - a weekly

current affairs magazine with traditionally right-wing leanings.



Few commentators can claim to have foreseen this success a year ago,

when France was still in the grips of recession and political

disillusionment.



Admittedly, the past year has witnessed both an economic turnaround and

a failure among the parties of the moderate right to constitute any

semblance of opposition. Nonetheless, the awkward, media-unfriendly,

sexagenarian former university lecturer at the head of a

Socialist-Communist coalition government has somehow managed to tune

into the wavelength of ordinary French voters.



On his election, Jospin appointed as his press and communications

adviser Manuel Valls, the 35-year-old who had overseen PR during his

election campaign and had previously headed communications for the

Socialist Party for two years. Valls’ links to the Socialist party go

way beyond handling Jospin’s PR. He has been a regional councillor for

12 years and now, as vice-president in charge of finance at the assembly

for the Ile-de-France region, he controls a whacking FrF14.2 billion

(pounds 1.5bn) worth of public money - the largest regional assembly

budget in the country.



Valls’ responsibilities at Matignon Palace cover the prime minister’s

day-to-day media relations, co-ordinating the government’s overall

message and advising the prime minister on his communications strategy.

Valls’ role is de facto political: he attends the weekly meeting of

ministers’ advisers who, together, elaborate political messages; he acts

as Jospin’s official spokesman during foreign visits and summits abroad,

and he develops off-the record relationships with key journalists.



Valls is open about the political nature of his role at Matignon: ’I am

a political product, not a civil servant. I am here quite simply because

Jospin has a very political vision of communication.’



Confidently setting out his platform on the role of PR in politics,

Valls could almost be addressing a Socialist Party forum: ’During the

1980s, in France and elsewhere, communication was favoured over

politics, whereas Jospin wants to rehabilitate the political. Political

decisions count above all else: we decide on and implement our

programme, and communication only comes afterwards. I think the public

is collectively intelligent and if you sell them a product which does

not correspond to reality, whatever your media and communication talents

might be, it doesn’t work.’



Placing the political over presentation does not mean that Valls has

laid off spinning altogether, though. Sharply-suited, bright-eyed and

impossibly smooth, Valls looks the part of a spin doctor and his media

tactics have undoubtedly been carefully thought out. He has close

contacts with Le Monde, the paper read by France’s left-wing

intelligensia and, as an evening paper, one that often sets the tone for

the next day’s headlines.



He is also on hand to help the coterie of domestic political

commentators whose columns appear in current affairs weeklies like Le

Point and Le Nouvel Economiste and which can set the tone for national

debate.



On the other hand, Valls seems to have little time for Liberation, a

more populist left-wing daily with a smaller circulation, thereby

breaking a well established communication channel between the parties of

the left and one of their chief media supporters. Valls says he

entertains better relations with the centre right Le Figaro, a newspaper

which boasts the highest circulation for a national daily in France.



Valls will also usually only speak to sections of the foreign press when

Jospin is due to make an official visit to the relevant country. The

Financial Times seems to be the exception to this rule, partly because

of its position as an international newspaper and partly because, as

Valls admits, he gets on with one of its reporters.



Valls’ TV tactics operate along similar lines. Since Jospin came to

power, his appearances on TV have been tactically sparse and he has

avoided political interview programmes in favour of snippet appearances

on the most watched news bulletins - a calculated decision designed to

reinforce his image as a man determined to get on with his political

agenda rather than gain celebrity status.



Valls admits one of his greatest challenges to date came early on in his

job when, last July, he had to communicate to the world that France

would meet the budgetary requirements needed to qualify for the first

round of European single currency membership without having to implement

crippling austerity measures.



His strategy was carefully planned: first he briefed France’s only

national Sunday newspaper, Le Journal Du Dimanche, off the record, which

ensured the government’s decision to join was on the next morning’s

front pages, by which time he had sent the government’s two most

media-friendly ministers to the relevant TV studios to bolster his PR

blitz.



’Since that day, there has been no more debate about whether or not

France would qualify,’ claims Valls. Probably with some justification.

The advent of the single currency has been largely embraced by the

French public, who now even get their supermarket checkout bills

expressed in euros.



Valls’ single currency campaign was short, sharp and effective, and

comparatively simple in its mechanics in comparison to his British

counterpart, Alastair Campbell who, for a less overtly left-wing and

political government, has gained a much higher, and more controversial,

political profile than Valls.



Unsurprisingly, given his views on the primacy of politics over

communication, Valls believes firmly that: ’Those in charge of

communication around Jospin should not show themselves too much. The

spokesman for the government is Lionel Jospin.’



Asked whether he seeks to emulate aspects of Campbell’s elaborate and

undoubtedly successful PR machine, Valls turns the question around. ’We

can look at what they are doing which doesn’t mean that our friends in

the Labour party should not seek inspiration from us from time to time

too.’



Valls’ and Jospin’s joint decision to shy away from the shiny, spin

doctored approach of their UK equivalents, may have paid off. Jospin has

earned himself a reputation for simplicity and honesty, very much in

line with Valls’ spiel. Sixty-four per cent of the French public claimed

they were confident Jospin would implement his key election pledge to

cut the working week to 35 hours, according to a survey published in Le

Point, last month, for example.



By steering clear of the public eye, however, Valls is probably just

biding his time. The success of Jospin’s PR must merely represent a

further step on the road to greater things for this ferociously

ambitious man.



’There have been articles on me, but I am not a celebrity and I couldn’t

be one, at least for the moment, because it would be in contradiction

with our communications system,’ he says with a sparkle in his eye.



FRENCH MEDIA: TV the most popular choice



The French press is largely looked upon by its UK and US counterparts as

under-developed, mainly because the large international media groups

have not yet managed to carve up the market. France’s two main national

newspapers - Le Monde and Le Figaro - are both published by French

groups.



Their respective national circulations are 338,640 and 374,744, small

fry compared to the Daily Telegraph’s 1,124,640.



According to the French national institute for statistics, INSEE, a

relatively paltry 36.5 per cent of the population reads a national

newspaper every day while 24.1 per cent never reads one at all. However,

these figures are put into perspective by the fact that a majority -

53.9 per cent - of the population regularly reads magazines.



This enthusiasm for special interest publications spills over into the

newspaper market: France has a well-read daily sports newspaper,

L’Equipe, and two daily financial papers, La Tribune and Les Echos, a

sister title to the Financial Times within Pearson. The country also

accounts for a plethora of regional newspapers which command high

loyalties.



Ninety-four per cent of French households own a TV, according to

research by advertising sales house Mediamat. TF1, which was privatised

11 years ago, has the largest adult audience share - 34.4 per cent, as

compared with 24.7 per cent and 17.3 per cent respectively for its two

closest rivals, state-owned channels France 2 and France 3. In the

audience competition for the eight o’clock news bulletin TF1 wins,

claiming a 38.5 per cent audience share for its show.



France is relatively far ahead in the debates surrounding TV

broadcasting.



It has had its own version of pay TV since Canal + was founded in 1984

and its plethora of digital and satellite channels are flourishing.



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