Le Monde, France’s pre-eminent daily newspaper, is set for a new era after a trio of French businessmen bought it to save it from bankruptcy.
But even the sale was done in a style typical of the paper’s history of independence: new owners Pierre Bergé, Xavier Niel and Matthieu Pigasse were chosen by Le Monde’s majority shareholders – the journalists – as the people best-suited to bring in the e100 million needed to cover the paper’s debt.
The journalists voted against the wishes of President Sarkozy – who backed the rival consortium of Orange and Spanish press group Prisa, which owns El Pais.
Le Monde’s spirit of autonomy – and never being told what to think – comes from its founder, journalist Hubert Beuve-Méry, who was asked by President de Gaulle after the Liberation in 1944 to create a paper to replace Le Temps – closed as pourrie (rotten) as it had continued publication during the Occupation.
Yves Agnès, a Le Monde journalist between 1970 and 1993, and a chief editor from the mid-1980s said: “Le Monde was created under de Gaulle to give France a newspaper that, in terms of international politics, would become the journal of record as Le Temps had been before.”
Under Beuve-Méry, Le Monde became a newspaper of information and opinion, with journalists’ moral integrity and passion at its core.
He laid down its values – and his guidelines to journalists – in his leading article in the December 18, 1944, first issue saying: “A new newspaper is published: Le Monde. Its first ambition is to provide the reader with clear, true and so far as possible, fast and complete information.”
In an interview with INA (National Audiovisual Institute), Beuve-Méry said the paper’s “raison d’être was precisely not to hold any opinion a priori and to inform as correctly as possible whatever the consequences.”
Mr Agnès added: “Le Monde’s ambition always was the truth of information. It was, from the very start, a paper that claimed to be absolutely rigorous in the quality of its information, fast and if possible complete, and, on the other side, there was the opinion columns.
“Le Monde has always given an important place to journalists’ comments, the leading articles as well as comment pieces from outside its editorial team.”
It guaranteed its editorial independence by ensuring the group was half-owned by former and current journalists: in 2009, Le Monde staff societies owned 50.87% of Le Monde, while French Lagardere media group and Prisa both held significant shareholdings. The new owners have allowed staff shareholders a blocking minority of 34% of its shares.
Based in the old Le Temps offices in Rue des Italiens, Paris, Le Monde was launched by Beuve-Méry, law teacher René Courtin and Christian Funck-Brentano, a close friend of de Gaulle. It was to be an evening daily, available in Paris after lunch time, in the evenings in other French cities, and everywhere else the next day, a format it has kept to this day.
At its heart are international politics, French politics, culture, the economy and social affairs.
Compared to other French dailies, it was noted for “its greater attempt at finding out the truth, and at the time, a larger coverage of international news. “It was not called Le Monde for nothing,” Mr Agnès said.
“Beuve-Méry’s principal trait was this: an independent spirit and a search for the truth. That’s what he was able to instil in his editorial team, his successors, and journalists.”
Led by his editorials, the journalists took strong positions during several conflicts and world events.
When Beuve-Méry quit in 1951 over criticisms by Courtin and Funck-Brentano for his anti-American and pro-Soviet Union stance, his journalists begged for his return and de Gaulle backed him. This affected Beuve-Méry, “who was extremely touchy about his independence and what the independence of Le Monde should be”.
Mr Agnès said he “did not want to appear to have the same opinion as the man who had crowned him”.
Beuve-Méry fought for his convictions, especially in the Algerian war in 1958, but, even if the two men often disagreed, de Gaulle kept Le Monde on his bedside table until his death.
But Le Monde’s revelations on the use of torture put it on the wrong side of the government, and censors banned it from sale 20 times.
Mr Agnès said: “Le Monde played a significant role in the Algerian war. It and L’Express were the two flagships during the Algerian events. They both denounced torture.”
In May 1968, during the violent demonstrations against educational reforms, the paper became the voice of the students, who voluntarily distributed it during “les événements”.
“The newspaper played a considerable part because it gave a very broad coverage of the events and was considered the most reliable newspaper.
“By 1968, Le Monde had already acquired its reputation for reliability, distance vis-à-vis its interpretation of events and the search for the truth, which was the goal of its founder.
“The coverage was essentially factual, and at the time the French press made considerable efforts to cover the facts. Since it was a mini-revolution, it was facts that mattered.
“Le Monde played a double role. On the international politics field, it was extremely visible on every continent with very competent journalists; and, on French politics, it became even more visible when Jacques Fauvet became director after Beuve-Méry left at the end of 1969.”
But Mr Agnès said the values and ethics of journalism so dearly taught by Beuve-Méry had not been fully passed on to the newer generations.
“What always springs to mind is when I first joined Le Monde, in March 1970; we would fact-check stories from Agence France Presse (AFP); 25 years later, this stopped.
“Since the 1990s, no one runs checks on AFP any more and Le Monde has for a long time allowed articles that do not conform to this ‘search for the truth’ to be published.”
Although some think Le Monde has lost its prestige, Mr Agnès said: “Le Monde is less of an institution than it was. For a long time, it held an authority because of its moral rigour; today it remains a symbol.
“A newspaper like Les Echos is close to Beuve-Méry’s idea of a rigorous and informative newspaper. But Le Monde’s status also relies on the fact that it is the paper of the political and administrative elites, of the executives.”
Readers are commonly in liberal and entrepreneurial executive positions, making 43% of the readership.
“Le Monde also emphasises its editorial independence. While Le Figaro was managed by a plane manufacturer and Libération by a banker, the third ‘quality’ paper in Paris is the last one to remain independent.”
With falling circulations and advertising revenues, the cash crisis in the industry is reflected in the fact that owners Amaury have opened up Le Parisien/Aujourd’hui en France to buyer offers, just weeks after Next-RadioTV boss Alan Weill sold 80% of La Tribune to managing director Valérie Decamp for a token €1.
As Le Monde fights bankruptcy, there are claims its biggest crisis is not financial, but state control of the media: Mr Sarkozy’s has several media gurus as friends.
Mr Agnès says this is just media noise: “There were interventions from Sarkozy in a number of cases, but it is not true Sarkozy holds the microphone of journalists in French radio and TV channels, or even the pens of the written press.”
However, he admits Mr Sarkozy “made an enormous blunder” in ending the independence of the heads of public media (France Télévisions and Radio France) and gave himself the power to appoint the new company presidents.
So, as other news organisations are losing independence, Bergé, Niel and Pigasse have committed e10m to refinancing Le Monde. This, with the journalists’ commitment to its ethics, its worldwide reputation and its status in France, should ensure the paper’s medium term future.
Newspapers trail magazines in French sales figures
France has the most magazines and magazine readers per inhabitant in the world, but journalist Yves Agnès says it is weak in daily newspaper readership. “The best-selling daily does not even sell 800,000 copies, so is nothing at all compared to the British or the Japanese.
“French daily newspapers have always been under-funded. The production costs are higher than elsewhere which means that the price for a single issue is a little too strong for the public, especially young people.”
Today, Le Monde costs e1.40 on the street but the total cost of putting together, producing and distributing the paper is €1.63. Advertising revenue is what keeps it afloat – and that has been hard hit over recent years. In the past decade, Le Monde has started to show signs of weakness and, since last year it has been on the brink of bankruptcy.
The new owners, especially Xavier Niel, will lead the drive on the internet, but Le Monde has been innovative in the past and its LeMonde.fr website went online on December 19, 1995. Its digital offshoot, Le Monde Interactif, also invests in fast-moving internet technologies.
LeMonde.fr is now France’s leading information website and, in January 2010, saw more than 5.2 million visitors.
Mr Agnès said: “Today’s crisis is not the first one and Le Monde is not the only one to go through such a crisis. All the dailies outside Paris are in the same situation now.”
The newspaper is still the most-purchased French national daily abroad and the fourth in France after Le Parisien, Le Figaro and l’Equipe. The paper is available in 120 countries and was read, on an average, by 30,852 people abroad per month, compared to 3,234 for Le Parisien, 8,484 for l’Equipe and 9,674 for Le Figaro.
Its readership has become older – 26.3% are between 50-64, with the 35-49 age group following – but it is still younger than Le Figaro’s.