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The Decline of the French Press

Sunday 5 October 2014

by SERGE HALIMI

The Paris daily Libération tried to revive its flagging circulation last year with the slogan “When everything moves so fast, there’s only one solution: go faster still”. Apparently, that wasn’t the solution; a year later,sales were still falling, and the directors announced that the staff would be cut by more than a third — while demanding more content from the remaining journalists. The new director general, Pierre Fraidenraich, warned anyone tempted to resist: “It’s that, or we die” (1). It’ll be both, probably.

There are worse things in the world than the slow agony of a small business whose revenue, customer base and usefulness are declining, but Libération’s story illustrates two important contemporary phenomena: print media between decline and coma, led by directors who no longer believe in their economic future or democratic mission; and a technically left government that can only talk in the mercenary language of its adversaries (“I love enterprise”). Libération, having been a mouthpiece for François Hollande, is caught up in these. Death is stalking the paper, and this foreshadows Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s warning that “the left could die”, with which he is trying to rally his last few followers.

Libération decided to stake its survival on anything other than journalism — organising expensive symposiums paid for by local governments (2); cross-marketing with its principal shareholder, SFR-Numericable, the cable operator and Internet service provider; turning its offices, in a trendy district of Paris, into a media-cum-leisure centre. As for the governing left, it can only bemoan the fact that the extreme right is “at the gates of power” (while maintaining the course that brought the extreme right to the gates of power).

But — old story — it’s a long time since anyone mistook Libération’s managing editor Laurent Joffrin for the heir of Jean-Paul Sartre (who founded the paper), or Hollande for the heir of Jean Jaurès (founding father of French socialism) (3). It took Hollande some nerve to announce that his true adversary was the financial sector when he had resolved to take no action against it. So what should we think of Joffrin,who claims that his paper is “the freest in France” but tells his surviving journalists: “We cannot insult shareholders who have put 18m [euros] into the paper” (4)? It is probably wiser not to, especially if Libération is to ask them for more very soon. The shareholders in major media are among the richest people in France; they own most of France’s print media (5), get their wealth from the most dynamic sectors of the global economy (luxuries, public works, arms, the Internet), and keep moving their bets between newspapers, television channels or websites. So for them to scorn and mock the current government is like giving a bad review to a show whose puppet-masters they have cheered.

Publishers now publicly adore their owners — the director of Le Point said of the Pinault family, “I wish all newspapers, all media, could have shareholders like ours” (6) — signifying a new deterioration in the balance of power between journalists and capitalists. Print media can no longer afford to turn down the charity of any rich investors who might condescend to pay off their debts. Libération is losing €22,000 a day, nearly 16% of its revenue (7). Last year, only two of the 18 French dailies listed by the OJD, which vouches for the sales of the French press — Les Echos and La Gazette des courses — grew their circulations, by 1.86% and 2.6% respectively. Sales of 240 of the 301 weekly, monthly, bimonthly and quarterly publications listed fell, in some cases significantly: by 21% for Les Inrockuptibles,19% for Marianne and 16% for Le Canard enchaîné. Unlikely financial return Reader disaffection has come at a time when advertising revenues are also declining — print ad revenues fell by 27% between 2009 and 2013. The captains of industry no longer invest in a newspaper in the hope of a financial return. “Serge Dassault,” said Capital magazine, “has been losing an average of €15m a year, for five years, on Le Figaro alone. Michel Lucas, head of Crédit Mutuel,has been losing an average €33m on his nine regional dailies in eastern France. Claude Perdriel was losing €5m before selling Le Nouvel Observateur. Bernard Arnault has made losses totalling €30m since buying Les Echos. François Pinault was the only exception: Le Point made a profit of €2-3mfor many yearsbut made a loss in the first half of 2014” (8).

If Patrick Drahi decided to spend €14m on Libération, it’s because he was expecting a different kind of return on his money. “You think twice before attacking the owner of a newspaper,” said Capital.“The obscure boss of Numericable, Patrick Drahi, was a nobody until he set out to take over SFR. The decision brought attacks from all sides; he was accused of being a tax exile, having dubious holdings in the Bahamas and holding uncertain French nationality. This is why he invested in Libération. … Xavier Niel has gone from telecoms pirate to establishment figure since becoming co-owner of Le Monde in 2010. And it didn’t cost him very much: his fortune fluctuates by more than €30m a day on the stock exchange, which is the amount he invested in the paper.”

The new proprietors have inside help: the training and background of most economic journalists, and columnists, make them likely to think just as neoliberally, as austerely, as the International Monetary Fund, the French Court of Auditors, or the Chamber of Commerce. US economist Paul Krugman notes almost every week in the New York Times that the monetarists’ fears have not materialised — public deficits have not led to galloping inflation — and that all the warnings issued by the Keynesians, especially that austerity policies would break economic growth, have come true. But Krugman laments that the monetarists continue to triumph, especially in major media. The near-extinction of independent media, or their subordination to the interests of those who already determine the economic and social policies of governments, is contributing to the conservative mood in Europe.

France’s president has been pursuing an economic policy for two years that follows the recommendations of the press. Naturally, the results have been terrible. Yet, far from being grateful to Hollande for having paid such close attention, the columnists are urging him to move faster in the same direction — and then resign. “Since you’ll never be re-elected,” advised former Socialist MEP turned commentator Olivier Duhamel, “you should at least see your reforms through to the end, and leave your mark on history.” A columnist in Le Figaro wrote: “Hollande seems to have lost the ability to bounce back.Perhaps that’s another reason why, when he has his back to the wall, he should stake his all, by honestly and courageously seeing his reformist and liberal policies through to the end, even if it means losing his majority” (9). The “return” of Nicolas Sarkozy seems to guarantee that a personal standoff between advocates of virtually identical policies will be part of the debate for the next few years. The media will mechanically punctuate that debate with endless polls and warnings of terrorism.

Since 1989 the France Inter radio programme Là-bas si j’y suis hadallowed a large and socially diverse audience to hear a different view of social and international news. This June, citing the age of presenter Daniel Mermet and dwindling ratings, France Inter’s management closed this free space. Yet Radio France still calls on veteran Christine Ockrent, or such people as Nicolas Demorand, recently ejected from the management of Libération after 89.9% of its employees demanded his removal. They are unsinkable, so widely known is their support for the employers’ version of globalisation (Ockrent) or social-liberalism (Demorand) (10). The end of the only daily national radio programme that disturbed the media harmony, and gave a voice to the working class through its investigations, was yet another blow to pluralism (11).

This has made defending Le Monde diplomatique and increasing its influence even more urgent. In 2013 the mobilisation of our readers paid off. Our French circulation (which fell by 0.61% according to the OJD) fared better than most. And for the first time since 2003, over the past three months our single-issue sales have exceeded those of the same three months in the previous year. Donations from readers, now a pillar of our finances, have risen substantially, reaching more than €243,000 (€180,000 in 2013). The number of subscribers to our French digital archives has gone from 0 in 2012 to 6,947 in 2013 and 11,382 in September 2014.

We have sought to anticipate a downturn in sales of the magazine, and the increasingly marginal role of advertising revenue (1.6% of our total revenue in 2013), by constantly finding other methods of communication, including digital. This should allow us to attract new readers and have a greater influence on public debate. Our radical guide to history, Manuel d’histoire critique, which came out last month, is part of this editorial and political approach, and one of many projects we could not have completed successfully without your support through subscriptions and donations.

In 2013 Le Monde diplomatique vanished from the list of the 200 publications receiving the most aid from the French government; it had been 178th. Closer magazine, a scandal sheet, remained in 88th place with €533,221, and the employers’ daily L’Opinion joined the list. This underlines the urgent need for a complete overhaul of aid to the press. Aid should primarily be given to publications that contribute to democratic debate, but don’t want to be dependent on charity from wealthy donors. TV magazine Télé 7 jours, part of the Lagardère group, receives nearly €7m a year; Le Monde diplomatique gets €108,600. Hopefully, the support of our French readers helps to redress the situation, since two thirds of the donations they make are refunded to them by the Treasury…

The new digital world is a self-service environment where articles are thrown together haphazardly. But, after the initial excitement, there is now a weariness at the stream of superficial information, the instant, predictable commentary, the misuse of language. And readers are getting tired of the rants.

Le Monde diplomatique is uniquely itself, and so escapes the fashion for speed, saturation, vehemence and simplification. Though it has changed a great deal in 60 years, its tranquil rationalism and its belief in progress make it stand apart. At a time when whole populations are slipping into obscurantism, fear and paranoia, it continues to believe that reason, science, education, knowledge and history can legitimately replace emotion, custom, prejudice, superstition and fatalism, as the basis of a project for the liberation of humanity.

We are not obsessed by the decline around us, for we still believe in independence. Our ability to go on fighting depends on you.


Serge Halimi writes above that Le Monde diplomatique believes in independence first. That costs. As he points out, the aid our paper gets from the French government dropped dramatically in 2013. The English edition — without advertising or any subsidy — gets its only revenue from subscribers, and sales in selected bookstores and newsstands.

See online: The Decline of the French Press