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Crisis at Libération - Part 3 (1981-today)

by afew Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 09:23:25 AM EST

(See Crisis at Libération - Part One
and Crisis at Libération - Part 2 (The Beginnings)).

By 1981, Sartre was dead and the purists of the early days had long left. (Of the original "team" of fifty in 1973, only seven remained to take part in the 1981 new formula). Serge July stated that leftism and the counter-culture no longer had anything to contribute. What was left but social democracy?

Libération new formula started a few weeks after the demise of Libé One. A couple of months later François Mitterand became President of the Republic. Serge July backed Mitterand and the Socialist Party. Social democracy it was.

<-------- Serge July with the number announcing Mitterand's victory in May 1981.<p>


The newspaper was now an enterprise - not like any other, since the workers collectively still owned the newspaper, in principle, but an enterprise all the same, with a limited liability company form (SARL), and the aim of running a profit. There were lay-offs to reduce costs. There was a management team that had the formal right to manage. Finance other than appeals to public subscription was sought, and advertising soon made its appearance in the pages of the paper. It was "the guarantee of our future independence", wrote July.

The '80s were fairly good to the new version of Libé. Without becoming an establishment paper, it was all the same very well-introduced. The mix of good journalism with a still-impertinent and often outspoken style gradually won it a place as N° 2 paper on the left of the spectrum after Le Monde. It never became, though, the daily of the masses that it had at first dreamed of becoming. Circulation rose to nudge the 200,000 mark, which was comfortable (for France), but didn't make it a popular press outlet. It was mostly read by baby boomers with vaguely leftish sentiments, students and intellectuals, those who might loosely fit into the "bo-bo" category, the bohemian bourgeois. There was considerable failure there - the early hopes were forgotten - but considerable success too, in that establishing an independent daily on the left is no easy thing to do.

However, a great deal rests on that word "independent". Advertising was going to guarantee independence, said July; but in 1983, he built a financial holding to bring in new investors. The new investors are well-known businessmen (Jean and Antoine Riboud, Gilbert Trigano of the Club Med, Claude Alphandéry). They may be "centre or centre-left" in their opinions, they are big bosses and this is a far, far cry from Libé's beginnings. July and his team were bitterly criticised by those who had left earlier, for having reneged on their principles.

The fact is that, from that point on, independence was not guaranteed. Every so often, the paper - constantly out to increase its appeal and attract readers by adding pages and supplements - hit new financial difficulties and called on outside capital to fill the coffers. Possibly the Mitterand years were dangerous, because financiers and businessmen favourable to the president personally and/or politically could easily be persuaded to support Libération. Which they did, of course, by buying a piece of the equity. And, bit by bit, the workers' ownership of the publication was diluted.

Between 1983 and 1996, 80% of the capital of Libé passed from the hands of the personnel to the hands of outside capitalists (Pierre Rimbert, Libération, de Sartre à Rothschild).


Circulation fell as disillusion set in during Mitterand's second term (1988-95). In 1994 Libé launched a new 70-page edition (Libération III) that flopped and had to be cut back. As a result, in 1995, July negotiated a fresh influx of capital from Jean Riboud and Jérôme Seydoux, both already important shareholders. Seydoux would remain the major "capital partner" for the next ten years.

Libé began Internet operations early, and its site now gets around 150,000 daily visits. It's not a subscriber site and brings in only advertising revenue. Meanwhile, (and the one may partly explain the other), as Web operations rose in importance, circulation of the hard-copy paper flagged: from about 170,000 at the end of the nineteen-nineties to perhaps 130,000 today.

Seydoux and the other historic "friends of Mitterand" investors had reached the end of their tether. They would remain shareholders, but July had lost their trust with the Libé III flop and they declined to supply any more losing money. In 2005, July persuaded a new capitalist to come in with €20 m : Edouard de Rothschild, a (predestined) banker who said he would like to branch out into something different. Within a few months, the €20 m had gone into plugging previously unsuspected gaps. Rothschild refused to cough up any more without cost reduction including lay-offs. Serge July found himself incapable (for the first time) of selling the line to the personnel that yet more changes had to be accepted for the good of the paper. Seeing he couldn't carry Rothschild's water, Rothschild got rid of him. It was prettied up and July got to write a tear-jerker about it, but that was the simple truth. Twenty-three years after bringing the first investors into a newspaper that was at first defined as outside "private capital, banks, and advertising" (Sartre), July brought in the last and biggest, who promptly gobbled him up.


Now about to begin: Edouard de Rothschild has taken total control of Libé. The leading figures of 2005 have gone. The company that collectively represents the personnel has lost its power of veto (its last remaining power). A new director/managing editor, Laurent Joffrin (unquestionably on the left) has a remit that focuses on getting the business on the right financial rails by 2008. There will be more cost reduction and very considerable lay-offs. Joffrin has outlined a plan to cut jobs by 76, of which 40 among journalists. This is rejected by the staff, and strike notice has been given for Monday, 4th December.

So, on the left though Joffrin may be, the newspaper is still in crisis, and its future freedom to speak clearly hangs by a thread. Perhaps the editorial staff feels like testing the limits, because they just (Wednesday evening) leaked the interview Sarkozy had given to the regional press, in which he announced his presidential candidature. This was meant to be a "surprise" -- Libé turned it into a surprising floperoo. And the language of front-page articles about Sarko has been particularly scathing. But how long will it last?

Edouard de Rothschild, on France2 TV News afew weeks ago: "I think it's rather an utopian view to want to differentiate between editorial staff and the shareholder."

Rothschild is not a "friend of Mitterand", but a "friend of Sarkozy". It would be outrageous (and impossible) for him to force the paper to support Sarkozy's electoral campaign. But the strongest remaining voice among French dailies that could clearly oppose Sarkozy now seems likely to have to mute its criticism or disappear.

Is this the end of the adventure, or did it end in 1981?

I'm glad you posted this now...it will be around for much of the weekend! Thank you for this series!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 11:21:13 AM EST
Yes, thanks afew!

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 12:51:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Good basis for a little leftist weekend depression...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 11:35:00 AM EST
Typical trajectory of any organization:  founded in a burst of enthusiasm, muddles along for a while, slowly loses its oomph, and evaporates.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 12:01:27 PM EST
You could see it that way.

But I see it more as a first, rather utopian attempt that fell foul of internal contradictions and unstated hierarchical snarl-ups, then a refoundation that unfortunately based itself too much on the '80s enterprise-and-capital mantra. And ended up, not so much losing oomph as selling out.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 12:47:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]

What I see is the very actions and mindset producing the early success plus the inevitable compromises, blind spots, & etc eventually iterated to deep and surface conflicts which were, in their turn, papered over by the capital infusion quick-fix.  Then that became another dynamic for more problems and conflicts.  

Any organization has the recurrent problem of re-inventing itself, to indulge in pop-management newspeak.  To go back and question a fundamental premise of the organization when that premise was responsible for the early success - apparent or real - is, well, hard work.  The greater the investment, so to speak, in the underlying cognitive basis of the organization the greater the barriers to junking it as it proves inadequate to the task at hand.  

In this case the positive feedback of spontaneous 'Let It All Hang Out' slowing dwindled as the daily grind of putting out a daily newspaper with not enough money to met the payroll.  

There are two ways to meet this: (1) Head-on and reduce staff until income equals outgo or (2) Skate-by and get a quick-fix capital infusion.  The first is short-term pain and long-term potential.  The second is proping-up the short-term at the expense of long-term potential.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 01:45:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
of ProgressiveHistorians, a community site dedicated to the intersection of history and politics, I would be honored if you would cross-post this excellent diary there.

The whole series, even better.

Wow.  I've REALLY been missing a lot over here.  I will read more regularly.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...

by Nonpartisan on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 12:02:09 PM EST
I'm sorry I haven't had time to read more at ProgressiveHistorians, but I took a peek and liked what I saw.

I'll be glad to post the series if you wish. Thanks for the invitation.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 12:43:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Holy bleep! How long has that place been going on? And why didn't I get the memo!?

Seriously, that looks like an interesting place.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt ät gmail dotcom) on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 12:43:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by Nonpartisan on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 01:38:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
To what extent did Libe (version I) fail to learn from the history of socialist communities of the 19th century, such as the Fourierists?

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 12:51:57 PM EST
That's a hard question, meaning I haven't got much of a reply. There may have been individuals who were aware of the Fourierists or other C19 social experimenters, but not among the people I knew. I can say I never once heard mention of this, and don't recall articles on the subject in the paper. I don't think it was a reference for them.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 02:34:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
good tone and rhythm to your writing, fascinating subject/history.

are you going for 'il manifesto' next?

stirling stuff afew, ta.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Dec 1st, 2006 at 08:09:17 PM EST
Thanks for this great series. A few (no pun intended) issues I'd suggest have also been factors in Libe's problems which are due to its loss of a distinct niche.

-part of the mission of the 70s that was retained in the 80s and 90s was to write in the language that people speak, less formal and more conversational than the "langue de bois" that characterized the major dailies, esp when discussing politics and policy. As Le Monde and other papers have evolved and become less formal and more readable, Libe's language came to seem itself a bit dated and posturing to some.

-the rise of the free dailies, such as Metro and 20 Minutes, distributed to commuters in Paris (and other cities?), beginning in the late 90s, cut into those who read Libe because it was less expensive and more current than Le Monde or Fig.

I think in short that while it may (or may not) have evolved politically, it has not found a new way to set itself off in its prose style.

by desmoulins (gsb6@lycos.com) on Sat Dec 2nd, 2006 at 09:55:52 AM EST

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