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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 November 2006, 15:23 GMT
The press in France
french press graphic

Faced with plummeting circulation figures and weak advertising revenues, some of the biggest names on the French newspaper scene have been forced into an uncomfortable alliance with big business in a desperate effort to stay afloat.

This situation has produced some unlikely bed-fellows - the media and defence conglomerate Lagardere is now one of the main shareholders of one of France's most respected dailies, Le Monde, and in 2005 the left-wing Liberation was rescued from bankruptcy by the financier Edouard de Rothschild.

Despite protestations on the part of the new financial backers of these two papers and Le Figaro that they had no intention of attempting to influence editorial content, the restructuring of the titles coincided with the departure of several long-standing and respected editors.

The veteran editor-in-chief of Liberation, Serge July - who founded the paper together with Jean-Paul Sartre in 1973 - hung on longer than most, but in June 2006 he too was ousted after refusing to implement further staff cuts.

Many rich industrialists evidently see having a stake in a leading daily as a way of promoting their interests and exercising greater influence on government policy - Arnaud Lagardere is a friend of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, while the owner of Le Figaro, Serge Dassault, has close links to President Jacques Chirac.

However, public perception of collusion between big business, the government and the press may not have helped to enhance the French people's respect for the national dailies.

It has even been suggested that the widespread conviction that opinion formers are in cahoots with the establishment may have been a factor in the French people's refusal to heed the urgings of political commentators to vote yes in the EU constitutional referendum in May 2005.

Only about 164 adults out of every 1,000 read a daily paper - a figure that places France behind most other Western European countries apart from Italy, Spain and Portugal.

The regional press is in a much healthier state than the national press, with many people in the provinces remaining faithful to their local paper. One regional paper, Ouest-France, sells twice as many copies as any of the national dailies.

Main dailies

Le Figaro

Based: Paris
Founded: 1826
Circulation: 321,500 (2006)
Owner: Socpresse (since March 2004 80% owned by Serge Dassault)

For half a century after World War II, France's oldest national daily enjoyed a comfortable existence as the voice of the conservative middle classes. But by 2004 circulation had fallen to the point where the paper needed to be bailed out in order to keep going. In that year the parent company, Socpresse, was acquired by the arms manufacturer Serge Dassault. Despite having pledged not to interfere in Le Figaro's editorial content, Mr Dassault lost no time in issuing a warning to journalists not to publish stories that could harm France's commercial interests. The paper was relaunched with a new design and in a slightly reduced format in October 2005.


Based: Paris
Founded: 1904
Circulation: 52,800 (2006)
Owner: The French Communist Party owns a 40% stake in the paper; most of the remaining shares are held by staff, readers and "friends" of the paper.

The only major daily to act as the organ of a political party, L'Humanite was founded by Jean Jaures as a socialist paper in 1904, and became the mouthpiece of the French Communist Party in 1920. Banned during World War II, L'Humanite continued to publish clandestinely until just before the Liberation of Paris. Now over 100 years old, it continues to bear the slogan "In an ideal world, L'Humanite would not exist."


Based: Paris
Founded: 1973
Circulation: 134,800 (2006)
Owner: 39% of shares in the paper are owned by Edouard de Rothschild. A staff consortium holds an 18.4% stake, and the remaining shares are owned by Pathe, the investment group 3i and friends of the paper.

Launched in 1973 by Jean-Paul Sartre and a group of like-minded left-wing intellectuals, Liberation was aimed at the "1968 generation" - those who felt frustrated by the slow pace of social change in France and wanted a paper with an alternative outlook. What started off as a radical chic publication moved closer to the mainstream from the 1980s onwards, and by January 2005, when the banker Edouard de Rothschild became the main shareholder and invested 20m euros (13m) in the title, the process of counter-revolution seemed complete. A restructuring plan proposed by Rothschild gave rise to protracted and acrimonious battles with staff, and many of Liberation's most respected journalists left the paper.

Le Monde

Based: Paris
Founded: 1944
Circulation: 314,000 (2006)
Owner: Le Monde SA, 15% of which is owned by the French conglomerate Lagardere

France's left-of-centre paper of record has always commanded great respect both at home and abroad, but this has not protected it from the profound crisis affecting the whole of the French press. Declining sales figures led to large-scale job-cuts towards the end of 2004, and in February 2005 the media and defence conglomerate Lagardere acquired a 15% stake in return for agreeing to invest 25m euros (17m) in the title. In 2004/2005 Le Monde dipped below its arch-rival Le Figaro in the circulation league table, and in November 2005 it too underwent a redesign. Le Monde now makes much greater use of full-colour photos and graphics - a far cry from the paper's original sober and lofty image.


Based: Rennes
Founded: 1944
Circulation: 760,250 (2006)
Owner: Association pour le soutien des principes de la democratie humaniste [Non-profit making group]

The Rennes-based Ouest-France sells more copies than any other French daily paper, and has been relatively unaffected by the decline in circulation that has bedevilled the national press over the last half-century. Strongly pro-European from the very beginning, the paper has also benefited from the attachment to one's native region that characterises "la France profonde".

Influential weeklies

Le Canard Enchaine

Based: Paris
Founded: 1915
Circulation: 420,300 (2005)
Owner: Les Editions Marechal/Le Canard Enchaine

A satirical and investigative magazine, Le Canard Enchaine is one of the few French titles to have shown a profit in recent years. It is entirely owned by its staff and carries no advertising, so has been insulated from the slump in ad revenues that has spelt disaster for the rest of the French press. The magazine's financial independence allows it greater freedom to investigate the shady dealings of top businessmen and politicians than the main dailies, most of which now have to weigh up the cost of upsetting their financial backers. Unlike the British Private Eye, to which it is sometimes compared, Le Canard Enchaine refuses to write about the private lives of public figures, preferring to focus on their professional failings.


Based: Paris
Founded: 1953
Circulation: 437,800 (2006)
Owner: Socpresse (80% owned by Dassault)

L'Express, France's first weekly news magazine, was modelled on the American magazine Time. Its first editor was Francoise Giroud, who had earlier edited Elle and went on to become France's first Minister of Women's Affairs in 1974 and Minister of Culture in 1976. The magazine has a right-of-centre orientation.

Le Nouvel Observateur

Based: Paris
Founded: 1964
Circulation: 511,900 (2006)
Owner: Le Nouvel Observateur

The left-of-centre Nouvel Observateur is particularly strong in its coverage of political and literary matters and has been described as "the French intellectuals' parish magazine". It is noted for its in-depth treatment of the main issues of the day.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

Country profile: France
24 Mar 04 |  Country profiles


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