- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2007

His plan to transform France is still a work in progress, but new President Nicolas Sarkozy already has revolutionized the traditionally standoffish relationship between the president and the press in France.

Borrowing a page from the United States, the media-savvy Mr. Sarkozy has instituted a weekly briefing for the press by his personal spokesman, instead of relying on the traditional government briefer used by such predecessors as Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand.

David Martinon, France’s answer to Tony Snow, now conducts a White House-style briefing in a camera-friendly studio at the presidential offices, at a transparent lectern that bears Mr. Sarkozy’s official seal with the words, “Presidency of the Republic.”

At his briefing last week, Mr. Martinon addressed everything from Mr. Sarkozy’s upcoming schedule and his relationship with Prime Minister Francois Fillon to the president’s thoughts on the forced retirement of a popular but aging soccer coach.

It’s all a sharp break from the practice of past presidents, such as Mr. Chirac, who gave almost no briefings and often limited his lengthy press interviews to a single annual televised roundtable every July 14 — Bastille Day.

After they were shut out for so long, some French journalists now fear that the press may grow too close to the accessible new president. Journalists at Le Monde, the ultimate establishment newspaper, recently clashed with the paper’s supervisory board chairman, Alain Minc, over Mr. Minc’s overt support for Mr. Sarkozy in the recent presidential election.

Other leading press barons close to the new president include billionaire Bernard Arnault, owner of one of France’s best-known business dailies; Paris Match magazine publisher Arnaud Lagardere; and Martin Bouygues, a major shareholder in the TF1 television network.

Critics say Mr. Sarkozy has not been shy about using his press friendships to obtain favorable coverage or to suppress embarrassing stories.

An association of journalists from more than two dozen French press outlets asked last month to meet with Mr. Sarkozy to discuss laws to guarantee independence for press properties from the conglomerates that own them.

Sarkozy is the guarantor of the constitution, and he must guarantee that there’s a diversity of information in this country,” Le Point journalist Francois Malye told the Associated Press.