Last week, the newspaper said the Elysee Palace had cut its order of the daily from 110 copies to 20. It said Jean Musitelli, Mr Mitterrand's spokesman, had blamed reports about the the President's prostate cancer and his role under the Vichy collaborationist regime. Le Monde's reporting was, in fact, in line with other French media.
Then Michel Charasse, a member of Mr Mitterrand's inner circle and a former Budget Minister, said on Radio Luxembourg that Le Monde was not worth reading because it no longer followed the line set by Hubert Beuve- Mery, its founder. He said he was reluctant to mention Beuve-Mery 'because I wouldn't want Le Monde's bosses to accuse me of being Petainiste, because Hubert Beuve-Mery was in Marshal Petain's (the Vichy leader's) camps in Uriage'.
Le Monde responded with a note explaining that Beuve- Mery had helped set up a civil service school in Uriage, near Grenoble, in 1941. It was disbanded in December 1942 on the order of Pierre Laval, the Vichy prime minister, because its loyalties were suspect. Pierre Dunoyer de Segonzac, the principal, was the subject of an arrest warrant and he asked Beuve-Mery to organise a resistance network among the students, it said.
Pierre Georges, Le Monde's humourist, went for Mr Charasse personally. The cigar- smoking, braces-wearing Mr Charasse is known for being forthright. On one occasion he threatened two television journalists, whose reporting displeased him, with an inquiry into their tax affairs.
'Big braces, big cigars, big talker, big connections, Mr Charasse always goes a little too far,' Mr Georges wrote.
Noting that Mr Mitterrand had kept to a promise never to sue the media for libel, he said the Elysee was indulging instead in 'soft proceedings'. If the Elysee really felt Le Monde was not worth reading, 'then it should be logical. Not 110 (copies), not 20, not one. Zero] Otherwise, it looks like incoherence, plain menace or mediocre calculation.'