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Open Letter to French MPs: "Don’t let AFP lose its independence!"

Tuesday 9 December 2014

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Members of the French Chamber of Deputies
Members of the Senate,

You are are being asked to consider a bill containing several proposals for modernising the press (Draft member’s law "PPL N°2224"). Among these are proposals that seek to amend Agence France-Presse’s Statutes to make the latter compatible with European competition rules.

Believing that the proposed amendments are far from being "limited changes", and that they would in fact decisively undermine AFP’s 1957 statutes, the CGT, FO, SUD and CFE-CGC trade unions at the agency — which together garnered nearly 62 percent of all votes cast in recent professional elections — ask you to consider their concerns, as follows:

1957: "The Statute of Liberty"

After the Liberation of Paris in 1944, AFP emerged from the war as a public company, but with the 1957 Statute it "ceased to be a state agency to become an independent agency." [1] The authors of the Statute of 10 January 1957 intentionally transformed AFP into an "autonomous civil entity", a unique "sui generis" organisation with its statutes enshrined in law. [2] It is neither a public entity nor a private firm, and article 2 of its Statutes specifies that AFP "may under no circumstances take account of influences or considerations liable to compromise the exactitude or the objectivity of the information it provides; it may under no circumstances fall under the control, either de facto or de jure, of any ideological, political or economic grouping".

The 1957 Statute, "a contribution by France to freedom of information" in the words of the agency’s first CEO Jean Marin [3], was the product of a debate lasting several years that was carried out in complete transparency. Marin, who served as CEO from 1957 to 1975, also coined the phrase "Statute of Liberty" to describe the text.

Now, as you are being asked to make changes that would disturb the subtle balance enshrined in the Statute, we’d like to remind you to what extent that document was the result of an overwhelming consensus: approved by 82 percent of the agency’s staff in an internal referendum, it was adopted by the French parliament unanimously; an extremely rare event.

Undermining the Public Interest Mission

Writing much more recently, in 2009, another former CEO, Claude Moisy, described AFP as "a hybrid company which shouldn’t even exist in the world of market economies, but which nevertheless works". [[From an op-ed piece published in Le Monde on 30 September 2009]. AFP had survived for more than half a century with its original statutes when the European Commission opened a probe in 2010. The Commission subsequently determined that state funds provided to AFP constituted "existing aid" under EU law (that is to say, they came into existence before the coming into force of the Treaty of Rome that founded what would eventually become today’s EU).

This recognition resulted from the fact that AFP staff were able to preserve the spirit of the 1957 Statute despite government plans to reform it in depth. In fact, a minor change in 2011, enacted by parliament with the unanimous support of AFP’s trade unions, simply inserted into the text an explicit reference to public, or "general interest missions", as already laid down in Articles 1 and 2 of the Statute.

Now, however, the European Commission is insisting that the French government undertake a series of what it calls "appropriate measures" by March 27, 2015. These measures, laid out in the new draft law, are summarized in a letter sent to the French government by Commission Vice President Joaquin Almunia dated 28 October 2014.

Among the provisions of the bill, two are of particular concern to the trade unions who value and defend AFP’s independence:

First, the bill would introduce into the Statute the notion that AFP may undertake activities that fall outside of its Public Interest Mission. The demand from Brussels came in a letter dated 28 March 2014, calling upon "the French authorities to... adopt a normative act which enshrines AFP’s obligation to spin off activities which do not correspond to Articles 1 and 2 of the law of 10 January 1957 into subsidiaries which are legally distinct companies." [Our translation]

This would change the very nature of AFP, destroying the delicate balance struck in the 1957 Statute. From AFP as a Public Interest Mission, or Service of General Economic Interest (tasked with providing "a complete and objective information service") we would move to a situation akin to that of a "private company"; indeed that very phrase already appears in AFP management’s texts.

In this new situation, some of the agency’s activities would be deemed eligible for subsidy by the state as Public Interest Missions, while others would be classified as purely commercial.

In reviewing the exchanges between Paris and Brussels, we were shocked to find that under such a dispensation, AFP’s German-language service would for example no longer be considered part of its Public Interest Mission. The acceptance of such logic could result in AFP being forced in the future to spin off entire swathes of its present activities, and in particular its foreign language services, into subsidiaries.

The planned creation of an investment subsidiary would take the agency in the same direction. According to the latest document provided by management, not only would state investment banks be involved in the new entity, but a "private investor" (who could thereby loan funds against the collateral of AFP assets shifted into the subsidiary). This would result in AFP no longer owning its own equipment, which would become the property of a private bank.

Secondly, the bill would change article 14 of AFP’s 1957 Statute, which shields the agency against the risk of bankruptcy. The proposed change would enshrine the ongoing disengagement of the French state from AFP, and would result in it also considering AFP as a private company governed purely by the provisions of commercial law.

Democratic Deficit

You are being called to vote upon a bill to bring AFP into compliance with EU law. But have you been able to consult the Commission’s exact demands to fully consider their implications for AFP? We were allowed to briefly examine the exchanges between Paris and Brussels, which allowed us to discover many points we consider to be contrary to the Agency’s founding principles.

In the interest of transparency, we have called on AFP management to publish the exchange of letters, in particular the "appropriate measures letter" of 28 March 2014 in which Mr. Joaquín Almunia sets out in detail the Commission’s requirements, while the one sent seven months later merely lists the measures in question. We note that the two reports on AFP by MP Michel Françaix could not take these developments into consideration: his progress report was made in January and his final report in March 2014.

The draft bill would mean acting in unseemly haste to transpose the measures sought by Brussels into law, because to our knowledge no detailed evaluation of their impact on AFP, in particular its independence, has been carried out.

What a stark contrast with the adoption of the 1957 Statute! What haste, what lack of transparency and consensus!

Wouldn’t it be reasonable to ask a parliamentary commission to study the impact of these "appropriate measures" that will change the founding principles of AFP? Why has there been no exploration of other options that would allow AFP to develop within in its Public Interest Mission rather than serving special interests?

Members of the French Chamber of Deputies
Members of the Senate,

  • Don’t take the risk of forcing through a new model that would endanger AFP’s independence, and which a majority of its staff oppose!
  • AFP came into being through an act of political will. It is time to show your political will to defend its independence!

Paris, December 9, 2014
The CGT, FO, SUD and CFE-CGC trade unions at AFP

Among other documents you might wish to consult:

[1According to Albert Bayet, who at the time was the head of the French National Press Federation.

[2For a full translation of AFP’s founding statutes, see https://www.sos-afp.org/en/statutes/text

[3The quote is from a speech by Marin before the French Academy of Social and Political Sciences on 29 February 1960