As pop music played on an endless loop on France Inter’s flagship morning radio show, the reporters who usually produce the state-backed channel’s political and celebrity interviews were far from the studio.

Instead, they joined thousands of other media workers who marched in Paris in late June to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to upend the way France funds its public service broadcasters.

Among them was Christopher Pauley, a union leader from France Télévisions, the public channel. “We’re really worried that the government’s endgame is either cutting our budgets or breaking us selling parts,” he said.

The dispute makes France the latest test of Europe’s beleaguered model of public service media, pioneering in providing free, independent news and entertainment with financial support from the state. But the model is being strained by tight budgets, declining audiences and political challenges to broadcasters’ legitimacy and neutrality.

About two-thirds of annual public sector media funding, which amounts to €21.4 billion in Europe, still comes from license fees – annual fees levied on households to fund public media. In addition to France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy are counting on them: in France, the state will spend 3.7 billion euros on public sector broadcasting this year, of which 85% of the royalty fee.

However, the Macron government wants to abolish the license fee of €138, which is paid by 23 million households equipped with televisions, and fund public media directly from the state budget. He argues that the levy is obsolete because fewer people own televisions, while the collection of the levy is no longer effective after the removal of a council tax which was collected at the same time.

Unions say more unpredictable budgets will make it harder for public service media to invest in staying relevant as streaming services pump billions into content © Patrick Villette/Alamy

Unions and media experts warn that public service broadcasters will be more vulnerable to partisan pressure if they are funded directly by the finance ministry, and that more unpredictable budgets will make it harder to invest in staying relevant as streaming services from Netflix, Apple and Amazon plow billions into content.

“Abolishing the license fee is a very bad idea which will considerably undermine the independence of public media,” said Julia Cagé, economist at Sciences Po.

In a media landscape dominated by outlets owned by billionaire industrialists, like Martin Bouygues’ TF1 and Vincent Bolloré’s Vivendi, having “strong and credible” French public broadcasters was particularly important, she said. More than 40 million people, or 80% of the population, watch public television channels every week.

The Macron government has dismissed the idea that funding reform will weaken or constrain public media, presenting it instead as a way to return money to citizens as inflation bites.

Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak told Le Parisien newspaper that they were working on “mechanisms” to protect the independence of state-backed media, which would be subject to parliament. These could include setting budgets on a multi-year basis, similar to how the UK gives the BBC long-term visibility on funding.

Similar skirmishes over funding models for public service broadcasters have erupted across Europe, underscoring political sensitivity. Germany, Switzerland and Italy overhauled their royalty systems to remove the link to TV ownership, while Finland introduced a dedicated tax and isolated it from the rest of TV spending. State.

Hundreds of people, mostly public service broadcasting workers, demonstrate in June outside the French National Assembly in Paris

Hundreds of people, mostly public service audiovisual workers, demonstrate in June in front of the French National Assembly in Paris against the abolition of the license fee © Hugo Passarello Luna / Hans Luca

Noel Curran, director of the European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of public service media organisations, said it was a sensitive time because France and the UK – two places with powerful public service broadcasters – were considering removing license fees. The UK government has told the BBC to expect a new system in 2028 once the current budget ends.

“In France and the UK there are changes looming, but we don’t know what the new models will be,” Curran said. “With a license fee, there is a direct relationship between the viewers and the medium, so it is a system that has many advantages.”

The EBU said it had seen a drop in funding for public broadcasters in countries that got rid of licensing fees as they had to compete for funding with everything from roads to schools.

The French government’s plans for media funding are linked to an anti-inflation bill, which Macron’s centrist alliance may struggle to get through parliament now that it has lost its absolute majority. The left-wing New People’s Ecological and Social Union (Nupes) alliance opposes the license fee reduction, although the far-right National Rally is likely to support the move.

‘I don’t think it’s going to go by any means, but the government could do well with the help of the right and far right who have never been big fans of state-funded broadcasters’ , said Socialist Senator David Assouline, who has long worked on media regulation. “The royalty needs to be redesigned and reworked, but not like this.”

Assouline said he planned to introduce an amendment that would establish a “contribution” to fund public media so that taxpayers pay based on revenue and not television ownership.

Private TV groups in France such as Vivendi’s Canal Plus and TF1 have remained silent on the fight against royalties because it would not affect them unless the government starts allowing more TV and radio advertising. public. But TV production companies like Banijay and Mediawan have expressed concern that the switch could weaken a big client.

Sibyle Veil, who runs Radio France, said whatever funding mechanism the government chooses must guarantee the editorial independence of public broadcasters. “We need to protect the trust our listeners have in us, so that we are not seen as an arm of the state or a propaganda outlet,” she said in an interview. “We cannot be at the mercy of a minister who doesn’t like something we broadcast and then cuts our budget.”

Additional reporting by Alex Barker in London