2008: A Website and Petition to Defend AFP

27 November 2008 | Activism

Last updated in May 2018

In late 2008, it became clear that the conservative administration of President Nicolas Sarkozy was determined to make major changes to AFP’s founding statutes, enshrined in a law dating from 1957. Privatisation was on the cards, and discussion among the agency’s trade unions turned to the idea of a petition.
Under previous union practice such an initiative would been organised in-house, via meetings in the various AFP services and offices around the world, and general assemblies at the Paris headquarters. But it was clear from the outset that the issue, which touched on media independence, was of importance for people everywhere, and in particular for the French general public. It was the French media that were the most influenced by AFP’s work, and French people’s taxes that paid for the state subscriptions to the agency’s services.
As the government proposing the change was right-wing, it was also clear that we could count on much of the opposition, and notably the then-powerful Socialist Party, for support.
The need for a broad campaign was obvious, and inter-union talks began on a petition text, which in itself posed problems. As is common in France, the company’s unions were (and still are) both numerous and divided, the more so given that the agency has several different categories of staff, many with their own specific unions.
Many of us wanted an appeal that purely and simply refused any change to the statutes, arguing that the aim of the government was clearly to privatise the agency, and that AFP had existed perfectly well for over half a century without any need for change. Others, notably in the influential French journalists’ union, SNJ, saw the government initiative as an opportunity to bring in new sources of funding, and to give the lie to accusations, often aired in the English-language press, that AFP was nothing more than a state news agency. The final result probably satisfied no-one completely, but we just about managed to maintain unity among the unions.

With the dawn of the World Wide Web, a petition needed to be online

Meanwhile, it seemed clear that in the new era of the World Wide Web, a petition needed to be online. I knew from experience that it would not be possible to set up a team to do the job, so having already created websites for the unions I simply registered the “SOS-AFP.ORG” domain name and got to work, using basic tools. I was able to use an open-source program for collecting signatures, written in the popular scripting language known as “PHP”. A copy of the rudimentary initial home page can be seen below.
The petition quickly took off, with signatures coming in both via the website and direct approaches to individuals using good-old fashioned clipboards and paper copies of the petition. In the latter category, one journalist friend with extensive contacts and a passionate commitment to the project, Jean-Michel Cadiot, was to be responsible for a significant proportion of the almost 22,000 signatures collected in just over three years, including many from celebrities. The job of transferring signatures collected on paper to the website became a cottage industry, with family members helping out.
I was later to have the site upgraded using Drupal, a sophisticated web management system, but that involved a huge amount of work and by the time it was completed the flow of signatures had already peaked.
The popularity of the petition was limited by several factors, the main one being that most people do not have a clear idea of what a news agency is, and consequently of how important it is. Even among people who did understand AFP’s importance, there were some who refused to sign on the grounds that it was itself part of the establishment, and therefore guilty of many of the sins of the media in general. Purely political motivations were also a factor both in support for, and rejection of, the petition. The list of public figures supporting it included many Socialist members of parliament, including François Hollande, who would later be elected to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy as president.
By the time the 2012 election came around, the initiative the petition had been created to oppose was already dead in the water, and a new plan was being discussed in parliament. In other words, we had won, and the petition had played a crucial role.
On the eve of the poll, in April 2012, we issued a brief statement announcing that the petition was being “suspended” after having attracted 21,834 signatures. I have however considered it useful to keep the site online, as a record of a fascinating period, and a possible tool for the future.

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