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With channel's launch, French join the global TV battle

ISSY-LES-MOULINEAUX, France -- There are more than 500 kinds of French cheese and 362 types of French wine. Why shouldn't there be at least one international French news channel?

That is part of the logic behind France 24, the newest all-news-all-the-time channel, which aims to rival the presence of CNN, BBC, and Al-Jazeera.

Dubbed "CNN à la française," the public-private network that began airing Thursday, with channels in French and English, on cable and satellite networks in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Washington area.

The network will also have a trilingual website in French, English, and Arabic at www.france24.com, and it plans to launch an all-Arabic news channel in June.

The idea for an international French news network became a priority of President Jacques Chirac, who was widely reported to have been angered by what he saw as a pro-US and pro-British slant by CNN and the BBC in the run-up to the Iraq war, which France opposed.

Chirac, a staunch defender of French language and culture, said a French 24-hour news channel was a "burning necessity."

The network says its mission is "to cover international news from a French perspective" and "convey the values of France throughout the world."

"Covering news with a French sensibility -- I'm not sure what that means. Drinking wine while you're covering the story?" said Lawrence Pintak, director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo.

Joking aside, he said, "Media is about power and influence, and if you are going to be a player in the world today, you have to have a TV channel." But the international news market is very crowded, especially with the Nov. 15 launching of the English-language service of Al-Jazeera, Pintak said. "So we come back to the question: Is the marketplace pining for a French perspective or accent on the news?"

In the Middle East, "People are suspicious now of any media coming out of the West, and they're doubly suspicious of any media coming from the West that's government-funded."

Alain de Pouzilhac, a former advertising executive who heads France 24, said the channel would be editorially independent and nonpartisan, despite receiving about $35 million in startup funds and $112 million in annual subsidies from the French government. The channel is a joint venture between TF1, the country's biggest commercial network, and state broadcaster France Televisions.

"I'm very pleased that the French elections are in five months because it will give us a chance to demonstrate the independence of this channel," he said. "Independence is crucial for our credibility.

"This channel will not be anti-American. But this channel has to discover international news with French eyes, like CNN discovers international news with American eyes," Pouzilhac said. "Objectivity doesn't exist in the world. Honesty exists. Impartiality exists. But objectivity doesn't exist."

Mark Owen, a former news anchor at ITV in London who will be one of the anchors at France 24, said that on a practical level, the channel will give more airtime to French positions. For instance, he said, last summer the BBC did not pay much attention to Chirac's calls for Israeli forces to cease their attacks in Lebanon, preferring to highlight Prime Minister Tony Blair's solidarity with the Bush administration's approach giving Israel extensive leeway.

"It may sound a bit grandiose, but I think that if other world views were put forward, maybe something different would have happened, and lives could have been saved," he said.

Today, Chirac aides dismiss the notion that anger over Iraq gave birth to the channel.

A Chirac spokesman, Jérôme Bonnafont, said the president's interest in the project grew from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, and from his belief that nations have a responsibility to correct the growing misunderstandings among cultures. The president's interest was also fueled by "the trend towards uniformity" created by globalization, Bonnafont said.

Although there may not be a huge demand for a global French news channel, Bonnafont said, supply would create the demand. "If you don't try to be present in the world in a dynamic way, then the world will ignore you," he said.

Albert Ripamonti, chief of news at France 24, said the network would pay attention to areas of the world that it views as undercovered, such as Africa, where many countries are former French colonies. France 24 is starting with journalists of 27 nationalities.

The France 24 newsroom in Issy-les-Moulineaux, just outside the Paris city limits, was running 24 hours a day for three weeks to work out the kinks. Crammed with cameras and TV lights, plasma television screens, and other electronic gizmos, it is divided in half, with one side concentrating on news in French, the other in English.

When programs air, they have almost identical content running at the same time from different ends of the newsroom.

The network will have a potential reach of 80 million households in about 100 countries, Pouzilhac said. Plans are to be fully global by 2009, with the addition of a Spanish-language channel and a website, and expanded broadcasting across North, South and Central America, and Oceania, he said.

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