Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber

Founder of 'L'Express' who influenced a generation

Wednesday 08 November 2006 01:00
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Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, journalist and politician: born Paris 13 February 1924; Diplomatic Editor, Le Monde 1948-53; Editor, L'Express 1953-70; President, Parti Radical 1971-79; Minister of Reform 1974; married 1945 Madeleine Chapsal (marriage dissolved 1960), 1962 Sabine de Fouquières (four sons); died Fécamp, France 7 November 2006.

Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber was a visionary journalist, writer and politician who played a vital role in modernising French political thinking after the Second World War. The grandson of one of Otto von Bismarck's personal secretaries, he was only 29 years old when he founded the first French news magazine, L'Express, with his mistress, the writer Françoise Giroud. Servan-Schreiber was fascinated by the United States and his bestselling book Le Défi américain influenced a generation of politicians seeking to assert a role for France in the post-war global hierarchy.

Politicians of all parties yesterday paid tribute to "JJSS". President Jacques Chirac, whose Gaullist ideology was often criticised by the more modernist Servan-Schreiber, said:

He had a passion for new ideas and a thirst for enterprise. He was daring and driven by a profound belief that France had all the qualities to conquer the challenges of the future and to be at the forefront of science and technology.

The former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who knew him from the Ecole Polytechnique and briefly appointed him Minister for Reform in 1974, said:

He was probably the most brilliant man of our generation. He was a step ahead of everyone and he made things happen.

The son of Emile Servan-Schreiber, the Jewish editor of the financial newspaper Les Echos, he was born in 1924 and grew up in a conservative business milieu whose mission became to rebuild France after the Second World War. The leading writers and intellectuals of the day passed through his father's doors. Jean-Jacques served in the Free French Forces and turned to journalism as soon as the war ended.

After being hired by Le Monde as the newspaper's youngest-ever writer on international affairs, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber used family money to found L'Express in 1953. For nine years under his joint editorship with the feminist Giroud, the magazine was a weekly supplement of his father's newspaper before being relaunched as a "French Time magazine" in 1964. Servan-Schreiber remained on the board until 1977.

L'Express, said Servan-Schreiber, was his "laboratory of ideas". Through articles commissioned from France's leading writers, Giroud and Servan-Schreiber set a reformist agenda - including decolonisation and a campaign to encourage women to enter politics - which deeply influenced the French political class. He campaigned actively against General Charles de Gaulle's return to power in 1958 and in favour of his friend Pierre Mendès France. De Gaulle's supporters snidely referred to him as "a French Kennedy".

His most celebrated book, Le Défi américain (1967; translated as The American Challenge, 1969), called on France to wake up to the technological challenges of the future. Its sequel in 1980, Le Défi mondial (The World Challenge, 1981), predicted the rise of Japan and the Asian tiger economies.

Ahead of his time and frustrated by the French establishment's unwillingness to change, he moved into politics. Ever hostile to the Gaullists, he moved to the Parti Radical, which he led from 1971 to 1979. During the 1970s, he was MP for Nancy and president of the Lorraine region. President Giscard d'Estaing appointed him Minister for Reform in Prime Minister Chirac's first government in 1974. But he lasted only 12 days because of his opposition to France's continued nuclear bomb tests. After leaving politics, he nevertheless remained an adviser - including to the socialist president François Mitterrand.

In the 1980s, he began to travel regularly to the United States and, until 1995, was a regular lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He spent his retirement between his home in Neuilly, near Paris, and a family house at Veulettes-sur-Mer in Normandy.

His son denied yesterday that Servan-Schreiber, who had rarely been seen in public in recent years, suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Franklin Servan-Schreiber said his father had suffered only from a kind of "mental degeneration" which affected his memory:

He read every day until the end - both magazines and the classics. The other day he asked, "Who is that woman?" on the cover of L'Express. It was Ségolène Royal [the socialist presidential hopeful]. He said, "Things are a mess, aren't they."

Alex Duval Smith

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