Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 08:57:01 AM EST
In late 1944, the French press, requisitioned and kollabo (with the obvious exception of the Résistance publications) during the Occupation, lay in ruins. Working at the task of raising France up again (not a sufficiently new France, unfortunately, but that's another story), De Gaulle asked Hubert Beuve-Méry to take over the remains of the defunct Le Temps and build a national, quality daily. Le Monde was born.
Le Monde was a publication of high standards that became France's newspaper of record, and one of the world's newspapers of record. The staff - first the Société des rédacteurs (association of journalists), then later, similar associations of managers and office staff, held a central position in the direction and control of the newspaper. The Société des rédacteurs controlled a majority of the equity and had the right to elect the director of the paper. Professional ethics were strictly adhered to. The paper attempted to be neutral, informative, not to take political sides, though it was humanist and progressive, and had a leftish tinge.
It was a broadsheet, written and printed in an austere style. There were no photos and only unobtrusive ads. Here's what it looked like, roughly, when I first set eyes on it in a British university library, though this edition is a little while before that (it's not hard to guess when... ;)):
|click for large version|
In the '80s, circulation began to fall, as with other dailies, and Le Monde began to run into financial trouble. The early '90s were critical years (as for Libération). And, as in the case of Libération, the response was a drift towards loss of editorial independence due to the need for injections of capital; or, put another way, loss of editorial independence due to excessive trust in "market" and "enterprise" solutions; or, another way, it got taken over by big money.
The change is associated with Jean-Marie Colombani, current director of the paper, who took over in 1994; with former Trotskyite Edwy Plenel, editor-in-chief till he left in 2004; and with Alain Minc, neo-lib businessman, consultant, and pundit, chairman of the supervisory board. (The links are to French Wikipédia).
The three played different roles: Colombani, smoothly centrist, with political contacts; Plenel, former journalist at Rouge, newspaper of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, was a tough newsroom boss; Minc was the man with the business ideas and the rolodex. The first recapitalisation saw the control of the Société des Rédacteurs reduced to a blocking third.
The ten years of the triumvirate saw a brush-up of Le Monde's look (today very elegant with colour photos and quality graphics), the launching of a web site in the mid-nineties, and an improvement in the financial position that has however proved short-lived. Beyond that, bizness bizness. From a small limited company in 1994, the paper is now at the heart of a complicated holding, Le Monde Partenaires et Associés, which controls Le Monde SA, which controls... Stop. Also in the mix are other companies that run a number of French publications, in particular the TV/cinema/cultural weekly de référence, Télérama, (with sales of between 600,000 and 700,000 a week), and also all the regional dailies of Mediterranean France, from Perpignan to Nice and over to Corsica. Buying up La Vie Catholique (group whose jewel was Télérama), and the southern newspapers, meant borrowing and also bringing in new partners, among them, with a stake of 17% in Le Monde SA, the Lagardère group, one of the world's biggest book and magazine publishers and otherwise owner of 15% of EADS, run by heir-to-the-throne Arnaud Lagardère, chum of Sarko's (that makes two with Minc).
Got all that? Like Libé, you think? Perhaps not entirely, but in common are the financial difficulties of French dailies (the French don't have the daily-buying habits of a good many other countries), and the readiness of a new generation of plutocrats to pour in cash in return for control of the brand.
What's different in the case of Le Monde is - beyond Colombani's capitalist-adventurer style - that this is a newspaper of record, a paper with influence. Critics have claimed that Le Monde's past ethics have been thrown in the bin, that professional standards have simply been ignored, in promoting commercial or political interests that involved, one way or another, kickbacks for the paper's leadership. Long-standing members of the editorial staff found themselves in opposition to the line coming down from the top, and up against refusal to accept open expression of doubt or protest, along with harassment. Plenel's running of the newsroom, with old buddies from the Trotskyite press as assistant editors, was particularly hard-line. Management tactics included threats of legal action and firing.
The big row blew up in 2003, with the publication of La Face Cachée du Monde (the Dark Side of Le Monde), by outsiders Pierre Péan and Philippe Cohen. The outcome was a legal stand-off, with Le Monde agreeing not to sue for libel if the authors and publisher agreed not to reprint. Which hardly shows Le Monde in a position of strength with regard to a lot of the book's allegations, which had become very public knowledge by that time, and a good many of which have been confirmed in print by other former members of the editorial staff.
From a review in WorldPress.org:
The authors claim these men hijacked a great newspaper, transforming it into a "modern-day Pravda" where "the management seems to be fixed on one strategic aim: to control by intimidation, alliance, or vassalage the pressure points of society."
Le Canard Enchainé, the weekly that pioneered investigative reporting in France, notes that the book, "despite its aggressive tone," is still "a litany of facts, testimony, and documents that form a rude indictment. . . . [In responding to the book,] the managers of Le Monde did not answer the essential question, beyond all the polemics: What ties does Le Monde have or not have with major French companies and their managers?"
The accusations included dubious business exchanges involving large sums, (with the newspaper distribution monopoly NMPP for example), and influence-peddling, with Alain Minc pinpointed for boosting his own career in business and consultancy thanks to his position with the "newspaper of record". Then, deals with politicians: in particular, old law'n'order warhorse Charles Pasqua (offered benevolent neutrality), economic liberalish 1995 presidential contender Edouard Balladur (given backing), the rising star launched by Pasqua and patronised by Balladur, Nicolas Sarkozy (benevolent neutrality, at the least). (The old Monde would not have cut these characters any slack [afew]). While it protected some pols, the newspaper attacked others (review by Airy Routier of the Nouvel Observateur):
Let's mention just in passing Péan and Cohen's analysis that Le Monde, in attacking first François Mitterrand and then Jacques Chirac, and in spilling a lot of ink to denounce political scandals "both real and phoney" has "given the world an image of a France...under the yoke of a corrupt governing elite," and thus helped foment "a wave of populism that the newspaper itself criticizes," as Jean-Michel Quatrepoint, a former journalist at Le Monde, wrote in his newsletter, "La Lettre A."
Attacked too, by Edwy Plenel, was Lionel Jospin, a former Trot like him. Plenel's revelation that Jospin had continued to frequent his old Trotskyite friends even after becoming First Secretary of the PS in the '80s, with the subjacent accusation that Jospin was a mole, did considerable harm to Jospin's reputation in the run-up to the 2002 election that we all know he lost. (Péan and Cohen revealed in their turn that Plenel himself had lied in saying he had broken off from Trotskyism in the early '80s, since he had in fact continued close contacts with the LCR into the '90s... They also revealed Plenel's dealings with a prominent police unionist, who received favourable cover in Le Monde in return for having police officers do Plenel's "investigative journalism" for him. In 2004, Plenel left Le Monde.)
The picture that emerged, and was never denied convincingly by Le Monde's leadership, was an extremely ugly one: Plenel could be seen as an enforcer and quasi-blackmailer, Colombani as a bought-and-sold adventurer, and Minc as the evil genius making money off the brand while waiting for it to founder so he could take over completely.
And founder it may well. Péan and Cohen announced that the newspaper was deep in debt, and on that point the management published accounts and denied major problems. But the paper is still losing money. The 2006 accounts will show €12 or 13 mn loss; interest on debt alone rises to €11 mn; meanwhile high salaries and handouts are still de rigueur for the top people. That seems to be the road towards the need for further injections of capital and the continued decline of a once-excellent newspaper.
Things, overall, seem to have stabilised somewhat compared to the '90s and early '00s. Le Monde is still a useful information source. But it's no longer the rigorous and left-leaning paper it was, and it's as well to look at it with caution.