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Le Monde's democratic coup

30 May 2007

The French daily Le Monde never does it like any other newspaper. A small item on its back page on 23 May 2007 announced discreetly to its million readers that journalists of France's most prestigious title had fired their directeur (publisher and editor) Jean-Marie Colombani. At the helm since 1994, "JMC" (as he is widely known) was seeking a third six-year term, for which he needed a 60% vote; he received only 48.5%.

This is the latest of a series of crises to shake the paper over the sixty-three years of its existence (it was founded in 1944 by Hubert Beuve-Méry, who retired in 1969, and whose proud name and founding-date has long graced the paper's masthead). That it is possible at all is owed to the first such crisis, in 1951, when the newsroom stood up against a takeover attempt by rightwing shareholders and obtained for itself a shareholder's rights - and the power to select its boss. Le Monde journalists, then - and I speak as someone who spent thirty-five years at the paper - are acutely conscious of their editorial freedom as well as occasionally erratic in their choices.

Le Monde thus remains one of the few examples of newspapers not owned by conglomerates and where journalists retain the right to veto the shareholders' choice of the paper's directeur. This amounts to an example of democracy and independence, but also of responsibility (or, as it may appear, irresponsibility, as there is no one more self-centred and individualistic as a reporter) and ethics. In 2006, journalists of the leftwing daily Libération had to surrender their own right in this regard as a condition of their main shareholder, a member of the Rothschild family, saving them from bankruptcy. Some at Le Monde fear that they might be next in line.

Patrice de Beer http://www.opendemocracy.net/author/Patrice_de_Beer.jsp is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.Among Patrice de Beer's recent articles in openDemocracy:"French politics: where extremes meet"
(4 December 2006)"Why is the left so gauche? "
(26 February 2007)"France's telepolitics: showbiz, populism, reality"
(2 April 2007)"France's intellectual election"
(16 April 2007)"France's choice: the Bayrou factor"
(24 April 2007)"Sarkozy's rightwing revolution"(8 May 2007)

A lost aura

JMC is famous in France for more than his lengthy editorials. His eagerness to build up a media group as a wall around a Le Monde shaken by deficits, which has made its independence increasingly difficult to protect, has been a feature of his leadership of the paper; so too has been his recent closeness with business circles who in most cases have aligned themselves behind the new, tycoon-friendly president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Colombani also acquired fame far beyond France for his post-9/11 editorial called Nous sommes tous Américains ("We are all Americans"); "How not to feel", he then wrote, "as in the direst moments of our history, deep solidarity with this people, and this country, the United States, of whom we are so close and to whom we owe our freedom, thus our solidarity?"

This was the peak of JMC's great years. He had saved from bankruptcy a prestigious but worn-out daily laden with debts of €10 million by drafting a bold salvation plan which opened a partial sale of Le Monde to friendly businessmen permitted to acquire shares to a maximum of 1%-2% of the total. A more dynamic management, a better layout, more punch gave it a new life while JMC - supported by his financial mentor and advisor to major CEOs, Alain Minc - brought the paper out of the red. This bought him time to plan the creation of a group which would support the "admiral ship". In 2001 he borrowed money to buy a group of regional newspapers, then later a group of magazines. In a country where national dailies are structurally in debt, light was appearing at the end of the tunnel while Le Monde's image had been restored, at the cost of a tendency to overreaching scoops and melodramatic headlines.

There then began to appear another JMC, as his previous efforts and the confidence he had built around himself seemed to unravel. In 2005 he fired his long-time partner, editor-in-chief Edwy Plénel, and shed hundreds of people to fight a new sales decline and a rising deficit while having the board grant him a "golden parachute". More aloof, closer to his business partners than to former colleagues with whom he had gradually lost touch, he appeared unable to restructure a group too often used as a goose whose golden eggs were plundered, and assets sold, to finance abysmal losses. This tightening of the screws contributed towards a profit amounting to a few million euro after years of deficit; but liabilities have now reached € 177 million and are growing exponentially thanks to hefty interest-rates.

Moreover, 47% of Le Monde's shares are now in outside hands - 17% owned by the Hachette group of Arnaud Lagardère (media tycoon, weapons manufacturer with Matra, Airbus shareholder and a very close friend of Sarkozy), and 15% by Prisa, owner of Spanish daily El Pais). Meanwhile the shareholding of the society of editors of Le Monde (SRM) has declined from 29.6% to 13.1%, and, with a new capital increase expected in 2008, it fears its share could shrink to 5% or 6%. These shifts help explain the rejection of the man who had resuscitated the icon of French media, the enduring mouthpiece of intellectuals - mostly de gauche - whose opinions had been feared and reporters respected for so long; a rejection that was perhaps most of all that of Alain Minc, feared as the master-puppeteer, the go-between with big business and rightwing politicians.

Many businesses, including newspapers, have in recent years changed ownership or undergone comparable internal crisis. Some have survived, some not. But for Le Monde to experience such a convulsion is not just another case among many, for it has long held a special place in French cultural life and to many French people.

At the same time, its aura has been compromised and its reliability more and more questioned as it entered the world of gloss and money; the result is that it has come to be considered by the French no longer as the newspaper, but as one not so different from its competitors. The number of critical emails sent during the presidential election campaign against the editorial line of the paper, and of JMC himself, is unprecedented. His objectivity was challenged, with some correspondents even identifying a pro-Sarkozy bias in his anathemas against centrist candidate François Bayrou or in the paper's coverage of socialist candidate Ségolène Royal; criticisms all the more wounding for a paper long known as left-of-centre.

A fresh script

Jean-Marie Colombani's rise and fall inescapably recalls those epic movies and novels about larger-than-life press tycoons, most notably Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. In cavorting too openly with the powerful and the wealthy, the soon-to-be-former sixth directeur of Le Monde had shed the mantle of frugality and dedication which characterised Le Monde's respected founder, Hubert Beuve-Méry.

JMC's career is a case-study in power: how it can drive or isolate, nurture hubris, modify the clarity of a person's vision of the world (or even transform it altogether); how too audacity and success can morph into overstretched ambition, how strategic vision can be disabled by poor managerial skills, and how the democratic process can break as well as make the most powerful of men.

What will happen now? Another crisis, for sure. But Le Monde's shareholders should not desert a ship they almost own, which remains the best medium in France for ideas and advertising, and which has built around itself a group which, better managed, could become profitable again - and thus (to make a claim whose value they will recognise) exert influence and power. So each side, a divided newsroom and disappointed shareholders, should in time come together to agree another candidate, if possible from inside the paper or the group. There are some clear potential leaders, even though whoever is chosen will take time to match the charisma of the Corsican magician who dreamed of remaining for as long as possible at he helm of an iconic paper.

But Le Monde also needs - and as quickly as possible - a less ebullient, abrasive personality who can re-establish confidence, less an "absolute monarch" but more a modest publisher who can steer the paper towards quieter seas. More than anything else, it needs to retain its independence from its shareholders. In a prophetic op-ed published in Le Monde on 21 May, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas warned about the risks caused by the financial weakness of today's media. He added that news was not a commercial goods like others on sale in the market, and that, "if newsrooms were to fall under the control of financial interests only looking for quick profit, the whole political sphere would be stabbed in the heart".

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