Jason Fraser: A red-top in the land of les bleus

The irrepressible British newspaper photographer has been hired to inject new life into one of France's great titles. He tells Ian Burrell what the attraction was, and why Mariah Carey was the cover-star for the first edition of 'France Soir'

In Paris it's a balmy lunchtime and Jason Fraser, Britain's best-known press photographer, is pacing the carpet of his executive suite on the seventh, and top, floor of the Hilton hotel, issuing his orders in French down the telephone .

Fraser has been in the City of Light for 11 days, masterminding the return to the news-stands of one of the most famous names in European newspapers, France Soir. As a photographer, Fraser is famously both fast and fastidious. He is, with only hours to go to relaunch, fizzing with nervous energy. He had fallen asleep on the carpet at 5am the previous morning, having designed the paper's first-ever World Cup wallchart and finished off an interview and picture exclusive with the pop singer Mariah Carey that he arranged, wrote and photographed himself.

In between giving instructions to staff, he now puts in calls to Paul McCartney's people and then to a Universal Records executive to organise a CD giveaway for readers. He disappears into his bedroom to ring the Sun editor Rebekah Wade and tell her about his new venture, discussing how they might further the entente cordiale.

"France Soir was an absolute institution and this grand old lady has been allowed to slide. It's criminal," he says of the considerable task ahead of him. The challenge ("I thrive on them") is an important one for Fraser, who has provided the photographic ammunition for countless front pages and who was a senior executive for Richard Desmond at Express Newspapers, but who has never designed a national newspaper before.

He doesn't exactly need the work. But he says he has been impressed by the courage and vision of Jean-Pierre Brunois, a property magnate, who has pledged to revive France Soir by giving it the personality of a Fleet Street red-top.

"This guy has the guts and the wisdom to bring out a paper that's interesting to look at and not turgid," says Fraser, forcefully. "The owner thinks The Sun, and not only The Sun but British papers in general, have got it right and that's why their circulations are so big."

Over the past year or so, Fraser has become increasingly successful as a portrait photographer, being invited to the Los Angeles home of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne and to Carey's luxury Caribbean villa. Record company executives entrust him to do shoots with stars such as Destiny's Child and Jon Bon Jovi, which are subsequently published by news organisations around the world.

Times have moved on from the days when he was known as "the charming paparazzo", the smoothest operator among those who make a living from following and snapping the famous, whether they like it or not. Fraser flinches at being described as a "pap", though he has in his bedroom an original poster of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, which first coined the P-word. Elsewhere in his London apartment are prints of the 1966 movie Blow Up.

Fraser, 39, grew up near, and still lives within a short distance of, Kensington Palace, the former home of Diana, Princess of Wales. He became sufficiently close to the Princess that he was able to follow her to the Mediterranean and photograph her with Dodi Fayed, shortly before the lovers died in a Paris car crash. After the 1987 Zeebrugge disaster, he managed, as a young news-agency photographer, to hire a boat and get pictures of unused lifejackets inside the stricken and partially submerged ferry. He photographed Carlos the Jackal when the notorious terrorist was still on the run.

From an office near to his home (in which he keeps one of the original journalist/pig puppets made for Spitting Image) Fraser runs a global picture desk, liaising with trusted colleagues around the world, organising pictures and placing photographs with news outlets. His photographs of Prince William's girlfriend Kate Middleton on a Caribbean beach made the front pages of almost every British tabloid last month. There were no complaints from the palace. By Thursday of last week he was back in London photographing comedian Johnny Vegas in order to promote the teaching of music in schools. He is probably the only freelance photographer who can get straight through to editors and proprietors.

When he first entered the sparsely-furnished France Soir, its atmosphere heavy with the pain of multiple redundancies and the cynicism of previously broken promises, he called the staff together and made a speech. "I'm not just some Brit who has come here to rip you apart and give you a good kicking. It's not a case of me just liking French wine and cheese and visiting a house in Provence for a few weeks a year," he told them in French. Spelling out his credentials, Fraser told the journalists that he had been "exposed to French culture since the age of four", having attended the prestigious Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in Kensington. He told them he began his career at the Paris-based picture agency Sipa Press. He even threw in the fact that his dog, a petit basset griffon, hails from the Vendée.

The mood softened but only a little. Over the first few days, as he changed the outlines of pages, putting greater emphasis on the use of pictures, swapping typefaces and taking the text up in size from nine- to 10-point, he says he "felt like [he] was in a minefield". Gradually he began to win the new team round, persuading them to break "stodgy tracts of text' into the "maximum of 30-word" paragraphs that define the pace and tone of the British tabloids.

France Soir was once the most popular newspaper in the land, basking in a six figure circulation and the reputation of founder and father-figure Pierre Lazareff, who was regarded with the kind of reverence reserved in Britain for the legendary Daily Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp. Today the paper is hidden away in an industrial estate in the suburb of of Aubervilliers. Security is tight not just because of possible reprisals from former staff. The paper had a bomb threat in February when the previous regime reprinted Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, which outraged Muslims around the world.

The newspaper began life in 1944 as Défense de la France, the paper of the French Resistance. More than 60 years later and the resistance at France Soir is not yet over. News of Brunois's possible accession triggered a succession of protests. The discontent is not altogether surprising, given that staff numbers have tumbled from a complement of 110 (on 35-hour weeks) to a skeleton crew of two or three dozen. To say the least, the departures have not always been graceful; computers have been urinated on, excrement has been left on walls and desks, photographic equipment has been destroyed and viruses run rampant in the IT system.

Since Brunois won full control of the newspaper in April, France Soir has not been published. On the recommendation of a friend, he turned to Fraser.

The editorial floor of France Soir is divided into a newsroom that, after the cull, is virtually empty and a design area, where the paper is produced. This is almost a total reversal of the previous regime, where the power, according to Fraser, rested with the writers. "The dominance has been on words. Pictures had been thrown in as an after-thought and so the balance was out of kilter. It gave the journalists - the writers - this inordinate amount of control."

For much of his time in Paris he has been attempting to give comfort to those who lay out the pages. "Everybody in design had been totally neglected, a bit like battered wives. Half the task here in these 11 short days has been to make them realise that they're valued and to talk to them as human beings." Fraser claims that writers had been accustomed to talking to designers in the intimate "tu" while expecting to be addressed in the more respectful "vous".

Up on the wall is a giant cork-board, marked out from one to 32. Occasionally a page proof is pinned to it, a practice common in British magazines but not in newspapers. By 9pm, two hours before the paper must be sent, only 10 proofs have been attached. At 10pm work is interrupted by the arrival of bread, paté, guacamole and several bottles of Haut-Medoc, which is distributed in plastic cups.

Brunois, like an expectant father, is a constant presence throughout the evening of the relaunch. Circling the newspaper's backbench, his shirt collar undone and his red tie unfastened in the style of the veteran news hack, he tells The Independent that he wants to return France Soir to former glories, noting that it was "the biggest paper 30 years ago".

"I want to recruit the popular readership that doesn't exist anymore in France. It's a fact that the daily newspaper market is going down whilst the magazine market is going up, particularly the celebrity magazines. There is a place to fill in the market, where the French papers can mix celebrity coverage and news." He "absolutely" acknowledges the influence of London-based red-tops: "the British papers are three years ahead of the French".

Fraser's own sources of inspiration are not just The Sun, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail but also the defunct Today newspaper, which was closed down by Rupert Murdoch in 1995. He has adapted the France Soir masthead to resemble that of The Sun and beneath it he has placed a large "No 1" to signal the new era and make the paper "a collector's edition". A Fraser shot of Mariah Carey, sipping from a large coffee-cup, dominates the front page. The next two pages feature his Mariah interview. Zinedine Zidane's final game for France on French soil provides the back-page lead and the main jacket is bolstered with an eight-page pullout on horse-racing. The lay-out is cleaner, less-cluttered and more picture-led than the old France Soir.

Against the odds, the new France Soir team pull it off. By one in the morning Fraser and Brunois are at the printing presses in St Denis, gazing on their new arrival. Fraser is convinced that someone may have sought to sabotage his efforts and is furious to see that the international weather report records that the temperatures in Geneva and Berlin were below freezing. It could have been a genuine mistake. For the next hour and a half, he badgers the printers to make amendments. "I've always got on well with inkies," he says.

Finally, at three, he calls it a day. He says he has been impressed by the "passion and incredible talent" of some of his French colleagues. "I knew I had 11 days to relaunch and rebrand this French institution with a minute team. I feel like I've delivered a baby, against the odds, in the back of a car. With a bit of luck they can teach it to walk and talk."

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