End of an era as founder quits flagging 'Libération'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

After 33 years, revolution from an unlikely source has come to a newspaper born of revolution. Serge July, the founder-head of the centre-left French daily, Libération, has been asked to leave by its chief shareholder, Edouard de Rothschild, a son of one of the world's most prominent capitalist families.

On the front page of yesterday's newspaper, journalists warned M. Rothschild not to tamper with Libération's "moral contract" to defend editorial freedom and "its own view of society". The journalists' statement tacitly accepted, however, that M. July, 63, would be forced to leave the newspaper that he founded in 1973 with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He is expected to quit his post as président-directeur général in the next few days, bringing one of the longest and most influential media careers in Europe to an abrupt conclusion.

M. July was a partially reformed Maoist at the time that Libération was founded. The newspaper was intended to preserve the flame of France's 1968 "student and worker" revolution. M. July's politics have since moved towards the centre and he has become one of the leading figures in the French media establishment. Libération has become a respected, intelligent, cheeky newspaper of the centre-left - still aimed at young people but increasingly ignored by them in favour of the internet, free-sheets and more radical, anti-capitalist politics.

Circulation and advertising have lurched downwards since M. Rothschild - with M. July's enthusiastic support - became the principal shareholder last year. In an interview with the newspaper Le Parisien yesterday, M. Rothschild, 48, said Libération was "close to bankruptcy". After investing €20m (£14m), he indicated that he was prepared to give Libération up to another €5m - but only if M. July, and Louis Dreyfus, its director general, stood aside.

There is much alarm within the newspaper but M. Rothschild has repeatedly said that Libération - if it is to survive at all - must remain left of centre and free of spirit. He believes that the title must be given a new start under new management if it is to recapture its appeal to younger readers. This might mean the newspaper would have to move further left, to reflect the radical, anti-market, anti-globalisation and anti-European views of many young people in France.

Libération was divided during the EU referendum campaign last year. Older journalists supported the proposed European constitution. Younger staff members campaigned, unsuccessfully, for the newspaper to support the "no" camp.

A former executive at the newspaper said M. Rothschild did not want to influence the daily editorial decisions of the newspaper. But he did want to have a say on financial decisions and long-term strategy. "So far, all that he has seen is €20m go up in smoke," the executive said. Other French media commentators suggested that M. Rothschild - regarded as a "leftist" by other members of his family - was naïve to think that Libération could be rescued without large injections of cash.

The newspaper's problems reflect a wider crisis in the French paid-for national newspaper market, which has lost almost 18 per cent of its circulation in the past 10 years. Libération, lacking the resources of a larger group, has been especially hard hit by the launch of several free newspapers aimed at the young. Its daily circulation of 171,000 in 2000 fell to 136,945 last year and is said to have fallen another 5 per cent since then. Advertising revenue has fallen even more steeply. Despite the axing of 52 editorial posts, Libération is now losing more money than when M. Rothschild bought 38.8 per cent of the capital last year.