Unhappy Monde

The shock resignation of an editor last week is indicative of a much deeper malaise in the French press, writes John Lichfield
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The Independent Online

French newspapers tear easily. The national newspaper industry across the Channel has always been delicate. In recent weeks, the three leading national, daily titles - Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération - have been tearing themselves apart, for differing reasons and, fundamentally, for the same reasons.

Last week, Le Monde lost Edwy Plenel, its revered, feared and detested editorial director. Whether he was forced out or flounced out is still not clear. Over the past eight years, Plenel, 52, has been one of the driving forces in the transformation of France's most prestigious national newspaper from a grey morass of finely crafted nuances into something more readable and challenging. Photographs! Sport! Colour! Scoops!

Plenel left after arguing with Le Monde's publishing director, ie editor- in-chief, Jean-Marie Colombani, over a disastrous 10 per cent fall in the newspaper's 300,000 circulation this year, and a €50m gap in its finances. Colombani had been talking to the arms group Lagardère about a large increase in the company's existing stake in the centre-left - and sometimes not so centre - Le Monde. By all accounts, Plenel, the day-to-day editor of the paper and a self-described "cultural Trotskyist", regarded this as a betrayal. He wanted to concentrate on editorial changes, including switching Le Monde from its traditional publication time in early afternoon to the morning slot favoured by practically every other national newspaper in the world.

In the same week, it was announced that Libération - the newspaper born from the leftist student revolt of 1968 - may be refloated financially by a member of the Rothschild banking family, aristocrats of French capitalism.

Edouard de Rothschild says, quite rightly, that Libération is a much better newspaper than its 150,000 (and falling) circulation suggests. He wants to make it the centrepiece of a new media group. Some journalists at Libération - now a well-written, snappily designed newspaper of the moderate left - are delighted. Others are horrified. But where else is the newspaper going to find the €20m it needs to survive?

Earlier this year, battle was joined between the warplane-maker Serge Dassault and journalists at Le Figaro for the soul of France's only conservative daily paper (circulation just over 300,000). Dassault, who became the de facto proprietor of Le Figaro in March, was accused by his journalists of censoring his own newspaper and wanting to turn it into a mouthpiece for his political views and commercial interests. An uneasy peace now reigns.

At the time of the forced marriage of Figaro, Le Monde (ie Colombani) asked in an editorial: "Is France returning to the bad old days (before the Second World War) when newspapers were the dancing girls of billionaires?"

At a stormy meeting of Le Monde's journalists last week, Plenel's supporters accused Colombani of seeking, in desperation, to do just that: to make Le Monde the "dancing girl" of the weapons-selling Lagardère group.

The underlying problems at all three titles are the same. All are much better newspapers than they were 10 or 20 years ago, but they have not been able to build a robust readership in a country notoriously allergic to the national daily press. A small dip in circulation, or advertising, can be enough to plunge any French national title into serious difficulties. In the past 10 months, all national titles but one - Le Parisien- Aujourd'hui en France (circulation 300,000) - have suffered serious losses in both readers and ads.

The rise of two urban freesheets - Metro and 20 Minutes - is partly to blame. Libération, which appeals to the young, has certainly lost out to the newcomers. However, the success of the freesheets cannot explain the desertion of the older readership of Le Monde and Le Figaro. A turning away from national politics? The 35-hour week, which means that people have more days off and don't buy newspapers on their way to work?

In Le Monde's case, some of the blame is attributed to a book published last year that accused the newspaper under the Colombani-Plenel regime of "hating France" and trying to run the country, not just write about it.

La face cachée du Monde (The Hidden Side of Le Monde) by Pierre Péan and Philippe Cohen, accused Colombani and Plenel of, among other things, promoting the careers of right-wing politicians and trying to undermine the former socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. At heart, the book was a highly exaggerated lament for the old, grey, intellectually uncompromising, unreadable (to many) Le Monde of the 1970s and 1980s. It seems, none the less, to have poisoned the trust of many traditional readers.

The congenital weakness of the Paris press means that it has always been starved of investment, which means that newspapers have been unable to develop the different sections that flourish now in the UK.

The sudden interest in newspapers shown by barons of capitalism is encouraging to those who wish to see the titles prosper. But also disturbing. If there is no money to be made from national newspapers in France, why are the big, non-media businessmen interested? Journalists everywhere, and especially in France, are proud people. They don't like to be thought of as rich men's dancing girls. Even if they are.

THE PARIS PRESS

LE MONDE

Founded: 1944.

Circulation: 337,000 last year but said to have fallen by 10 per cent since then.

Readers: teachers, intellectuals, politicians, senior civil servants, lawyers, bobos, other journalists, concentrated in Paris area.

Politics: moderate to immoderate left, pro-European.

LE FIGARO

Founded: 1866.

Circulation: 334,000 last year but fallen since then.

Readers: small businessmen, big businessmen, lawyers, junior civil servants, retired people, traditional Catholic bourgeoisie. Politics: centre right with flashes of harder right, mostly pro-European.

LIBÉRATION

Founded: 1968.

Circulation: 149,000.

Readers: teachers, intellectuals, artists, bobos, students; young but not so young as you might think.

Politics: moderate left-libertarian, pro-Third World, pro-European.

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