Al Jazeera Goes French

Al Jazeera is planning a French language version of its news network. That means, government funded France 24 will be in direct competition with it for viewership in Africa and amongst the continent's French speaking diaspora.

The Al Jazeera English news room in 2010 (Paul Keller, via Flickr CC).

Once again, the Qatari media company, Al Jazeera has announced it is in the advanced stages of launching a French-language news network. It has already confirmed a 5-hour news block to be aired on its English language network aimed at the UK. In the US, the Qatari media company has also bought Current TV, and is setting to officially launch in the United States in April with the slogan, “Inspire, inform, and entertain.” During a press conference held recently in Doha, Al Jazeera’s Director General, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al-Thani, said that the plans for the potential French network would “build bridges with other cultures and people.” This bridge may not sit well with French media heads, and could be bad news for France 24, the government funded French 24-hour network currently broadcasting worldwide in English, French and Arabic and a channel very popular in North Africa and French speaking countries south of the Sahara.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy fought hard to keep Al Jazeera from being able to launch a news channel in France. This was definitely aimed at preventing any conflict with the publicly funded France 24, but also to serve as a barrier of competition to other French networks. However, he wholeheartedly supported their purchase of the Ligue 1 football league TV rights (via their beIN Sports subsidiary).

In 2011, it was reported that Al Jazeera Sport would be launching a French channel after having purchased French domestic audiovisual rights for Ligue 1. They scooped up one of five rights packages to be able to show two live games a week from the French for a cool 90 million Euros. Soon after, they launched BeIn Sport, a global network of sports channels (btw, they have the contract to show matches of the US men’s national team live). This purchase served as a blow for Canal +, the major French network for sports.

Now, France 24 will be in direct competition with Al Jazeera for viewership in Africa, and certainly in France itself. (Full disclosure: I have freelanced largely with France 24, and once for Al Jazeera.) France 24 has a huge viewership in Africa and used that advantage to good effect. On the ground, correspondents were in Mali during the recent occupation of the country’s north by Islamists followed by the French invasion. Shortly after the killing of the US ambassador in Libya, France 24 reported around the clock on developments inside the country using their extensive database of local activists and “Observers.”

Despite Al Jazeera’s association with the “Arab Spring,” France 24 Arabic has been more popular than Al Jazeera in certain Maghreb countries.

South of the Sahara, Al Jazeera has had to deal with censorship in Ethiopia. The network claims that Ethiopian authorities have declined to comment on the possible censorship. An anonymous blogger is reported as saying that the authorities blocked the sites after Al Jazeera aired coverage of protests against how spiritual leaders were elected in Ethiopia.

That said, France 24 Arabic is now experiencing a depreciation of viewership in some regions, according to Slate Afrique. Much for the same reasons as Al Jazeera’s run with unpopularity, France 24 Arabic has been accused of spreading a French agenda in its broadcasts. France 24 Francais has continued to do very well on the continent, but well-funded Al Jazeera could seriously hamper their efforts. (France 24 has an English channel too.)

The larger theme of Al Jazeera launching a French channel is not a conflict with just France 24. French channels will also be competing with Al Jazeera on their home turf. Non-Arabic or English speaking French citizens, whether Black, Arab or White, seeking a different vantage point would be interested in an alternative outlet coming from outside of France itself. This is a bit unprecedented in a country like France, where le français (the language) has its own institution, La Francophonie. Qatar is a fairly new (“associate”) member to the institution and with a first major French language news network from outside France, is truly expanding its influence in the country and abroad.

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