The World: France finds its voice, but is the world listening?

Former Havas boss Alain de Pouzilhac insists his new global venture, France 24, can rival the BBC and CNN.

Two years after the power struggle that forced him to cede control of Havas to Vincent Bollore, Alain de Pouzilhac again finds himself attempting to establish a France-based media operation on the world stage.

This time, though, it's different. While Havas strove with limited success to join its rival Publicis among the world's elite communication groups, at least its offering was clear. Now de Pouzilhac is peddling a less easily defined product.

At the end of last year, France 24, the country's first international news channel, was launched, with de Pouzilhac at its head. Its aim: to present world events from a French perspective and provide a counterbalance to the major established players, CNN and BBC World.

The catalyst for France 24, which is backed by the French government, was the despair of the then French president, Jacques Chirac, that there was no outlet for France's opposition to the Iraq war.

France 24's 170 journalists are spread across parallel services in French and English delivered via cable, free digital satellite and broadband networks. Jointly run by the state-owned France Televisions and the private channel TF1, France 24 can call on correspondents from both organisations to fulfil its mission of covering "international news with a French perspective and to carry the values of France throughout the world".

It's no secret the French are seen in both London and Washington as the "awkward squad" of world politics. But de Pouzilhac maintains that differences with the British and US governments over Iraq are just a reflection of French culture.

Tell a Frenchman that the weather's turned out nice and he'll want a debate about it, he says. "We like to discuss everything. France is about diversity of opinion, and our job is to reflect that."

Whether or not France 24 has enough resource to do that effectively is an open question. The network has an annual budget of EUR86 million, well below the EUR900 million CNN has at its disposal.

Critics claim the paucity of funding will leave it stretched. De Pouzilhac acknowledges not only the financial disparity, but the channel's late arrival on the international scene (CNN launched in 1980, BBC World in 1991), but he claims that this will act as a spur to France 24 to be sharper and more inventive with its creative ideas.

He draws an analogy with advertising. "The most creative agencies aren't necessarily the biggest ones," he says. "Also, our late arrival allows us to take better advantage of technological developments as the mobility of TV becomes greater. We have the opportunity to build something that's more efficient than either BBC World or CNN."

However, onlookers suggest that France 24 will survive come what may because the vested political interests backing it will not allow it to fail. "It really has no need to be commercial," one says. "To suggest that it can survive without government support is like suggesting Chelsea FC doesn't have to rely on Russian roubles."

For his part, de Pouzilhac is dismissive of threats to France 24's impartiality. "I've had no calls from the government about what we're doing," he insists. "Our status is no different from that of the BBC. We have our view of things in exactly the same way as the BBC, which sees things through British eyes. Our research also shows a lot of people think CNN is far from independent, but highly reflective of the Bush administration's views."

Nevertheless, France 24 may have a way to travel before advertisers are convinced. Ian Rotherham, Media Planning Group's head of international, says: "France 24 is attracting some interest from advertisers and, given its audience, I would expect it to be picking up corporate and financial advertisers and, potentially, telecom and energy companies."

De Pouzihac admits the channel has yet to prove itself to advertisers. "They are interested, but we recognise that, for the moment, media organisations will be reluctant to encourage their clients to invest in us," he says. "We have to demonstrate that our consumers are loyal and that we're developing our market share."

He is quick to draw a comparison of his challenge ahead with his past experience at Havas, which he says was drawing 86 per cent of its revenue from outside France, compared with just 14 per cent when he became the head of the then Eurocom in 1989.

Today, he is philosophical about his resignation from Havas in June 1995, having initially welcomed the interest from the corporate raider Bollore, but watching him turn from passive investor to what he regarded as a "cuckoo in the nest".

"Of course it was sad to leave a company after such a long time. But Bollore was trying to gain control without paying the price, and my job was to protect our shareholders," he says. "I'm not bitter about him. I still have a lot of friends at Havas, which I think has a lot of talent and the means to succeed."

Whether the same will be said about France 24 remains to be seen.

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