Dream dies but presses keep rolling

Born of '68, standard bearer of the left - now Liberation needs big business to bail it out.
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THREE weeks after the death of the only Socialist president to rule France, control of the newspaper that the intellectual left made its own is set to pass from a journalists' collective into the hands of big business. Liberation, the daily born of the 1968 student revolt, whose founding editor was Jean-Paul Sartre and whose influence grew as the Socialists rose to power, is succumbing reluctantly to the market.

Meetings of the newspaper's staff and board early this week are expected to approve a deal whereby the French cinema, television and textile group, Chargeurs, which boasts an annual turnover of FFr12bn (pounds 1.6bn), provides the bulk of a FFr70m rescue package. The newspaper is currently losing FFr1m a month and would otherwise face almost certain closure. The publisher of Liberation, Serge July, who as a young lecturer was one of its founders, has been active in the negotiations.

In the deal, which was still being finalised late last Friday, Chargeurs is expected to increase its stake in the paper from 12 to 65 per cent. The share of the staff collective is reduced from 45 per cent to 20 per cent - less than the third they needed to block board decisions, but they will retain a say in the appointment of the publisher of Liberation, and so in the choice of editor.

The takeover has been looming for several weeks now, but that has not made the change any less traumatic for the staff. They inherit from the paper's founding fathers a suspicion of the commercial world that successive French business scandals have only reinforced. To surrender control now, after 22 years of publication - Liberation graduated from an amateur news- sheet into a "real" newspaper in May 1973 - is for many tantamount to a betrayal.

They fear that more still will be sacrificed, including what remains of the egalitarian ethos of the '68ers. There are fewer pay differentials than on other papers, all the staff, from the editor down, address each other by the familiar "tu", and everyone has a say in the running of the paper.

At the Liberation offices, sited appropriately midway between the entrepreneurial bustle of the Place de la Republique and the bohemian, now thoroughly gentrified, Marais quarter, the mood is resigned. After the weeks of uncertainty, fatigue has set in, said one member of staff, "people are very demoralised".

Rescue plans have been under discussion since before Christmas. One, which involved nearly 100 redundancies (out of a staff of almost 500), was rejected outright, prompting talk of closure. The current plan entails 65 job losses; while most will be voluntary, a small number of compulsory departures is likely. A spokesman for Chargeurs said last week that the company had no intention of intervening in the running of the paper or changing its editorial direction. But, he said, this was conditional on the rescue plan going through, and he "hoped" for "good management" in future.

In its heyday, in the early and mid-Eighties, Liberation was a phenomenon: sales had risen from 20,000 to almost 200,000. Although derided by the communists as "out of touch with the working class", it had become the standard-bearer for the left and was regarded as a rival to the centre- left Le Monde. The number of pages rose from 20 to 56; the number of staff rose to almost 500. It also pioneered the use of new technology in French newspapers.

In recent years, however, its cachet, and some of its editorial sparkle - the racy, often irreverent headlines, the insider revelations and political authority - have been lost. It still has a strong record in scoops - it was Liberation that broke the news of President Chirac's decision to resume nuclear tests - but the role of chief tormentor of the establishment has been taken back by Canard Enchaine, the satirical weekly, while Le Monde has consolidated its reputation and authority.

Romantics will say that the fate of Liberation mirrors that of the political left in France: its origins lay in 1968, it rose - and fell - with the Socialists. Even the most idealistic members of Liberation's staff, however, think otherwise. "If it were just Liberation that was in trouble, there might be some truth in that view," said political commentator Pierre Haski, "but the whole of the press is in difficulty."

The young, he says, are just not reading newspapers. They are the television generation and it is vain to think otherwise. He adds that the rapid rise in the price of newsprint, specific production and distribution difficulties - print unions are still strong in the French newspaper industry - and the cost of newspapers in France, at FFr7 or almost pounds 1, limits readership.

The paper's chief editor, Jean-Michel Helvig, agrees. He notes that the right-wing, pro-Chirac daily, Le Figaro, has also lost circulation, even though the right won the presidency and dominates all organs of political power. A particular problem, he says, has been the marked decline in newspaper sales in Paris - a real difficulty for Liberation with its largely metropolitan readership and relatively poor distribution network. Similar difficulties forced the closure earlier this month of Infomatin, a small-format daily designed for a new market, which had lasted barely two years.

It has to be said, too, that Liberation may not have made the most of its Eighties strengths. After rapid expansion, it entered a number of ill-advised business ventures - a radio station and a Lyons affiliate - which proved expensive failures. Its staff, moreover, remain predominantly '68ers - now fortysomethings who still think of themselves as the young generation. The introduction of new ideas and talent was perhaps neglected as a result. But then, as Mr Helvig argues, if you change things too much, you risk losing the readers you have.

When circulation started to fall seriously 18 months ago, a major redesign and relaunch was attempted. Although striking, it failed to attract more readers. Over the past year, the redesign has been tweaked, the weekly magazine abolished, the number of pages cut; and, before Christmas, the size of the big tabloid pages reduced - all in an attempt to improve the bottom line and stave off any takeover.

For all the weeping over the end of an era, though, this week's change of owner is only the latest compromise that Liberation has made. Its original vow not to take advertising went in 1981, as did pay equality. The staff shareholding was steadily reduced over the years, and the fiercely anti-establishment editorial line was softened.

For the post-'68 generation, Liberation is a newspaper like any other, and it is on those terms that it must now compete.