Mass walkout as major French paper taps far-right editor with record of antisemitism

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PARIS, France — One of France’s biggest newspapers is in turmoil after the shock appointment of a far-right editor whose rise to prominence underlines the rightwards shift of the country’s media and politics.

Geoffroy Lejeune, just 34, was unveiled last week as the new editor of the influential Journal du Dimanche (JDD), which is the only national Sunday newspaper with weekly sales of around 140,000.

News of his nomination by owner Lagardere, recently acquired by conservative billionaire Vincent Bollore, prompted a mass walkout from staff last week, which has paralyzed the paper and its website.

“Everyone is in shock, stunned,” one journalist at the paper told AFP on condition of anonymity ahead of the official announcement on Friday.

Lejeune, who is close to several senior far-right political figures, “expresses ideas that are the opposite of the values that the JDD has carried over the last 75 years,” the paper’s union of journalists said in a statement.

Culture Minister Rima Abdul-Malak joined politicians on the left as well as media freedom group Reporters without Borders (RSF) in expressing concern about Lejeune being handed such an important media platform.

The Lagardere News building, with the group logo on the facade, in Paris, on June 27, 2023. (Photo by Martin LELIEVRE / AFP)

“Legally speaking, the JDD can become what it wants, as long as it respects the law,” Abdul-Malak wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “But for our republic’s values, how can you not be alarmed?”

Lejeune’s nomination was described as a “provocation and the demonstration that the far-right is now installing itself calmly in the media” by eight former editors of the newspaper.

They expressed outrage that the identity of the paper was being “erased” by Bollore.

Racism scandal

Lejeune was until recently editor of the far-right weekly Valeurs Actuelles, whose profile he helped raise through provocative headlines and caustic attacks on the country’s politicians and intellectuals.

In 2019, around 400 academics criticized the publication in a joint letter after a vicious and highly personal diatribe against Benjamin Stora, a renowned Jewish historian of French colonial history who viewed the article as antisemitic.

The magazine has also repeatedly targeted Jewish financier George Soros, calling him the “billionaire plotting against France” in a 2018 frontpage headline.

In 2021, the publication was found guilty of racist hate speech after it published a fictional story and cartoons depicting one of the country’s most prominent black MPs as a nude slave in chains and an iron collar.

Lejeune endorsed far-right media commentator Eric Zemmour during his campaign for the presidency last year and is a close friend of Marion Marechal, the niece of far-right patriarch Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Zemmour, who is also Jewish, put the “great replacement theory” — which posits that white French people are being deliberately replaced by immigrants — at the center of his error-strewn bid for presidency.

Immigration, crime, alleged left-wing media bias, “woke” teachers, “anti-white” ethnic minorities, as well as the spread of Islamism, were common subjects covered by Valeurs Actuelles under Lejeune.

“Save white heterosexual 50-year-old men,” read one of his last front-page headlines in May.

Photograph taken on June 27, 2023, in Paris, showing the logo of French newspapers Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD), JDD Magazine and Paris Match on the facade of the Lagardere News building. (Photo by Martin LELIEVRE / AFP)

Rightward trend

Bollore’s rise to prominence illustrates two major shifts in France in recent years.

A conservative Catholic from northwest France, he has been gradually expanding his empire to take in TV channels, the magazine Paris Match, radio station Europe 1 and latterly the JDD.

After acquiring news channel iTele, he provoked a record strike of 31 days in 2016, gutted most of the staff and turned it into a conservative platform dubbed “France’s Fox News” by critics.

“Bollore is a specialist in taking an axe to media that he buys,” Christophe Deloire, secretary general of RSF, wrote on Twitter.

Lejeune is also one of a number of journalists, commentators and intellectuals who have helped move hardline views on immigration and Islam into the media mainstream, mirroring the shift in the country’s politics.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen secured her highest-ever score in the second round of last year’s presidential election (41.5 percent) and one poll in April showed she would win if the vote were run again.

Chairwoman of the French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party Marine Le Pen delivers a speech in Le Havre, northern France, on May 1, 2023. (Photo by Lou BENOIST / AFP)

Many politicians privately admit Le Pen could be France’s next president, while public opinion surveys show that her — and Lejeune’s — views on immigration are broadly supported by most French people.

A poll by the BVA Opinion group for RTL radio in May showed that two-thirds of respondents were “worried” about immigration and the same proportion thought there were too many immigrants in the country.

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