Sartre's old paper rescued by big business

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The Independent Online
STEPHEN JESSEL

Paris

The threat of closure which was hanging over Liberation, one of France's few national daily newspapers, has been lifted after the staff agreed to a financial rescue package, but the deal has robbed the paper's journalists of much of their prized independence.

Almost 80 per cent of the staff voted in favour of a 70m-franc (pounds 9m) recapitalisation plan raising the share of capital held by the Chargeurs group, which has extensive interests in film and television, from 12 per cent to 65 per cent and reducing the staff share from 45 per cent to 20 per cent.

The vote appears to reflect a gloomy recognition that the choice lay between accepting the plan and seeing the paper close.

In a separate vote, 65 per cent endorsed an "independence pact" which promises the staff a continued blocking minority on the paper's board and the right to elect their own editor, subject to certain conditions.

In alliance with another group of shareholders they will have the right of veto on some major strategic issues.

"There's relief rather than euphoria," said one senior journalist. "No one is happy about selling the paper, but it's better we do business with a company that has had a stake in the paper. And at least the vote was clear, and not a 51-49 split."

The paper, tabloid in form but serious in approach, and usually abbreviated to Libe, was founded in 1973 by the late Jean-Paul Sartre, among others, to recreate the spirit of the 1968 street revolt by students and workers.

Liberation ceased publication in early 1981, but reappeared in a less stridently left-wing guise some months later, although its critics suggest that some of its staff are spiritually still living in 1968.

Its circulation reached 195,000 in 1989, but has been falling in recent years.

Even so, compared with some of its competitors, the paper has a thoughtful and questioning approach and a degree of imagination. Its foreign coverage is good, it reacts well to big news stories and its sometimes eclectic cultural section shows verve.

The death at the end of 1995 of the lively and cheap InfoMatin was a sign of a wider crisis facing the national press in France, as the result of a flourishing network of regional papers, an archaic distribution system and high cover prices (usually Fr7, or 90p).

Liberation had two relaunches in the past three years, including an unsuccessful attempt at a weekend supplement and an over-ambitious expansion to 80 pages, but was estimated to be losing pounds 1.5m a year. Staff rejected an earlier rescue attempt which would have entailed a 25 per cent cut in jobs, but the rescue deal will still entail the loss of 78 jobs at the paper by the end of November.

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