By Alain Hertoghe
Does France have the daily press that it deserves?
An unprecedented financial crisis is hitting the major newspapers, abandoned by their readers, hence by advertisers. Le Monde is firing 90 of its 740 employees (including 35 journalists). The popular Le Parisien is also announcing that it will soon cut staff. Le Figaro and Libération, two direct competitors of Le Monde, will have to do the same, and sooner rather than later. As for France Soir, the once gloried popular daily, and the communist L'Humanité, both are in agony; they have too few journalists left to be able to fire any.
At the two most prestigious papers, Le Monde and Le Figaro, unrest simmers among anxious editorial teams. At Le Monde, they criticize the directing duo of Jean-Marie Colombani and Edwy Plenel for giving up the serious and moderate tone that built the success of the "the newspaper of record" and pushing a catchy, even fluffy editorial tone. At Le Figaro, journalists question the intentions of the new owner, businessman Serge Dassault, who is also a senator belonging to President Jacques Chirac's political party.
The purchase of Socpresse, which owns in addition to Figaro influential weeklies like L'Express and L'Expansion, by the aerospace group Dassault confirms the interest of France's major business groups in media in general and the dailies in particular. That's what worries the journalists. The luxury goods group LVMH already owns La Tribune, a business daily, and businessman and corporate raider Vincent Bolloré could soon take a stake in Libération. The fears of journalists for their editorial freedom are a little exaggerated, if one takes as a reference the defense group Lagardère, which stays out of the editorial rooms of its various publications, and a little besides the point.
In fact, it's no mystery why the traditional press is in decline: The French have simply lost interest. For their information, they have, for some time, preferred television, radio, and, more recently, the Internet and two free dailies, 20 Minutes and Métro, which have attracted young urban readers. In 1970, 4 million newspapers were published daily in France. In 2003, the number of copies sold had fallen to 2.1 million -- a 47% decline. Last year, Le Monde's circulation fell more than 4%, that of Libération by 3%, and Le Figaro more than 1%. Since the beginning of 2004, this loss of readership has worryingly picked up speed. In fourth position behind Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération, the small Catholic daily La Croix is the only one to win new readers; circulation is up 10% since 2000. Not much consolation for the press community. And the crisis isn't sparing the economic press: Les Echos is down 10% since 2000 and La Tribune 13%.
How come the French dailies are among the least read in the Western world? Their high price, pushed up by the archaic printing and distribution monopoly, is the most frequently cited explanation. (And that's in spite of the direct and indirect subsidies from the French government to the tune of €280 million a year.) Competition from TV and radio, the Internet and free dailies, is also among the commonly mentioned reasons.
All this is obviously true. But no one seems to question whether French citizens don't have other deeper motives to give up the habit of buying a daily newspaper. Maybe, just maybe, readers find the traditional press and its judgments boring and uneventful.
But don't expect the French press to question itself! Mother of all media, it tolerates no reproach. Great lesson-giver to television and radio, the print press keeps silent about the recent boom of bestsellers written by journalists who criticize its shortcomings or failings. In 2003, the management at Le Monde and La Croix fired the authors of a book criticizing them, instantly considering it to be an act of high treason, even though the journalists had been working in their respective newsrooms for many years. I speak from personal experience, since that happened to me after publishing a study of the five principal French dailies (including my own paper, La Croix) that revealed their biased coverage of the Iraq war in spring 2003.
The French press, of course, congratulated the New York Times and Washington Post for their mea culpas on the shortcomings in the coverage of the Iraq crisis, including on WMDs. But sweep its own doorstep, even though its narration of the Iraqi conflict has been more anti-American than journalistic? No way. It has never seriously investigated the links between Jacques Chirac's France and Saddam Hussein's regime, either. Backing wholeheartedly the diplomatic line of the Elysée and the Quai d'Orsay, French dailies have shown in an exclusively negative light the motives and the actions of the United States and their allies in Iraq (including 12 of the 25 EU member states). French readers are never given any positive information about a country that was freed from Saddam's dictatorship.
Coverage of the American elections was just as much of a unilateral caricature. After having at length let the French believe in the victory of the new JFK out of Boston over that dangerous cretin from Texas, the dailies cast George W. Bush's victory as one of darkness over enlightenment. To follow them, a majority of brainless bigots voted to confirm in the White House a team of fanatical crusaders who irresponsibly threaten world peace and individual liberties. Maybe the consumers of the French press have grown tired of reading what they, too, spontaneously think while guessing that reality must no doubt be a little bit more complicated?
Always deferential to power, be it political, economic or unionized, French dailies have never really undertaken much investigative journalism. But, since the end of the 1980s, they have also given up their ideological identities. There was a time when Le Figaro was conservative, Libération leftist, and Le Monde at the center. Today, they all more or less share the same politically-correct corpus of views, a kind of soft social-democratic way of thinking. As a result, the dailies all look alike, and readers cannot distinguish between them. Democracy, needless to say, suffers from the absence of debate.
For when they flip through their newspapers, the French are never at risk of a surprise. Bush, GMOs, Ariel Sharon, globalization, the new EU member states from eastern Europe, economic liberalism, McDonald's or military power all -- in these pages -- upset the progress of humanity. But on the other hand, the U.N., the Franco-German duo, the 35-hour work week, the PLO, the "other America" (Kerry's and Michael Moore's), activist José Bové, France's Arab foreign policy and the Kyoto protocol all move in the right direction.
So is it really so surprising that readers buy fewer and fewer of these newspapers when they know, a priori, what they'll find inside?
© Wall Street Journal Europe, November 24, 2004