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When Mondes Collide

A new book claims that France's newspaper of record has gone bad to the bone, and there's real meat in it.


From the Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 2003

After two long decades in which Le Monde led the French assault on corruption in politics and business — a protracted muckraking era à la française — the authors Pierre Péan and Philippe Cohen, respectively France's leading free-lance investigative reporter and a business editor at the weekly Marianne, charge that it is no longer the watchdog, but the mad dog of France. The authors claim that "the place taken by this daily in the life and operations of the Republic is now decisive," and that the misuse of that power is directly responsible for a "degradation of democratic life in this country." They aren't just saying that Le Monde, with a circulation of over 400,000, sets a biased agenda for the rest of France's media, but that it sometimes creates events it covers, for its own profit.

The book makes some telling points: Le Monde destroys not only corrupt politicians, but respectable leaders and citizens, on the basis of distorted evidence. One passage details how a government minister was forced to resign after Le Monde used scissor-cut quotes from his book about his days as the mayor of a rundown suburb to paint him as a racist. The daily also dictates policies at the highest levels of power — for example, by intervening in the government's attempts to resolve the crisis in Corsica, including publishing detailed information, apparently leaked by an ambitious official, that let a suspected Corsican nationalist assassin escape arrest. Some of these tales are known to anyone who regularly reads the Parisian press, but Péan and Cohen have documented them in startling depth and profusion.

Most startling, perhaps, is the revelation that Le Monde trades its power and pages for cash. In one of the book's best-documented chapters, we follow negotiations with the Norwegian media conglomerate, Schibsted, in 2000, as it sought to launch a free daily newspaper in France. For Le Monde, the potential rewards included contracts for its printing plant, a piece of the new daily's capital, and a proportional cut of the profits. In exchange, Le Monde promised to use "all the intellectual means at its disposal" for the project's success, specifically including lobbying among various "actors, institutions, or companies," and "public opinion." The deal fell through, and Le Monde's editorial page demanded the "intervention" of public authorities to stop free dailies, in the name of journalism: "A question of principle is posed: Does not making information free devalue it?" Maybe — but then, what was Le Monde doing with Schibsted in the first place?

A dreadful irony permeates these passages. Le Monde's founder, Hubert Beuve-Méry, spent his career trying to set an example of public service and independence for a French press crippled by its collaboration with financiers and politicians before 1940, and with the Nazis immediately thereafter. After founding Le Monde in the newly liberated offices of an Occupation-era newspaper in 1944, Beuve-Méry defined his journal's credo in an icily proud phrase: "We are poor, and we intend to remain so." Le Monde's strength was that it could not be bought. After surviving repeated financial crises, it has turned into a media group that defines its independence differently: Get rich, so no one can mess with you.

The book sold out its first printing of 20,000 copies within hours of publication, another 40,000 the first day, not counting copious extracts in the newsweekly L'Express, and current sales are estimated at over 250,000, according to the publisher — huge figures for France. It has generated a massive online debate, a still rare occurrence in France. Even rarer was an editorial in which Le Monde, which tends to dismiss criticism unless forced to respond by legal threats, conceded that a powerful newspaper may indeed "use its influence ill-advisedly, and it can be tempted to abuse its power." Nonetheless, the book's chief targets — Le Monde's director Jean-Marie Colombani, board director Alain Minc, and editor-in-chief Edwy Plenel — plus eight other plaintiffs, filed separate lawsuits for defamation, collectively asking for over $1 million in damages plus publication of the judgment in numerous journals.

My guess is that Péan and Cohen will find themselves in trouble when they go to court. (A trial date has not been set, and the case may not be heard before the winter.) They claim to perform a public service, "for Le Monde, and against those" — the plaintiffs — "who brought it where it is today." That surely won't exempt them from the two basic tests of French libel law, which are to get the story exactly right or to have shown "good faith" in researching and telling it. They repeatedly fail both tests. Multiple passages here are unprovable, badly sourced, or simply outright nasty. A tidbit gives the general flavor: Plenel is accused of using his journalism for a Trotskyist party in his youth as an "alibi" to prove to his father that he was doing something serious in life while his old man paid his bills. This unsourced insult hardly explains how Plenel came to play a historic role as the leading practitioner and theorist of French investigative reporting in the 1980s.

Cheap shots like these undercut one of the book's key themes — that investigative reporting in France has become a public menace: "This model of a moralizing, policing, even denouncing" — the French term used here, délateur, retains the sinister aura it acquired under the Nazis' boot — "journalism imposes its law from international news to culture." The proclaimed purity of the media's investigators becomes the pretext for a new corruption, of power without limit. One example among many: The authors recount how Le Monde (followed by the rest of France's media) trumpeted a highly dubious accusation of sexual harassment against a prominent intellectual, brought by a close relation of friends of one of the paper's directors.

The same charges against the media emerged in the U.S. after Watergate, but the context changes the content. The Hidden Face of Le Monde details (though it is not the first work to do so) how the paper gets nearly all its scoops: by persuading sources inside the judicial administration to feed it secret documents from corruption cases. Beginning in the early 1990s, that technique was used by French reporters and magistrates to prevent political leaders from quietly smothering corruption cases. Péan and Cohen argue that it is now used to blow cases out of proportion: In the fall of 1999, Le Monde forced the Socialist Minister of Finances, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, out of office on the ground that any minister who had been indicted should resign. In fact, though Strauss-Kahn was implicated in a fraud scandal, he hadn't been indicted. He was later tried for having antedated a consulting bill, but was acquitted.

As the authors point out, Le Monde's pages have become France's contemporary Balzac, a feuilleton that readers can follow day by day. But feeding the daily scoop machine means running a growing risk of being manipulated by anyone with damaging information, true or not, about a public figure. Thus rivals of President Jacques Chirac nearly sabotaged his campaign in 1995 by feeding Le Monde the phony "news" that he and his wife cut a sweetheart land deal with a municipal agency of Paris.

The fact remains that before Plenel and a thin platoon of other reporters made it their business to crack the state's doings, France was a country in which very little could be or was said about the ways of its rulers. Shattering that secrecy was no small or ignoble feat. But the authors argue that the state legitimately requires secrecy to go about its work. It's an argument that can lead to disaster, as the Pentagon Papers demonstrated in 1971. But that doesn't mean it's totally without merit. Unfortunately, the authors' idea of a demonstration is to accuse Plenel of attacking one of former President François Mitterrand's close advisers "because he tried to protect the apparatus of the State" from Plenel's "constant incursions." In the process, one of Plenel's historic scoops — that the French secret services bombed a boat belonging to Greenpeace at Auckland in 1985, killing one of the passengers — is portrayed as a mere by-product of a power struggle inside the government, with Plenel in the role of a manipulated and manipulating mouthpiece. I'd say a pointless killing went down, and people in high places let it go down until reporters exposed it. How can you justify keeping murder secret?

Another charge rings more true: The real investigative work in Paris isn't in Le Monde anymore. (One of its staffers candidly admits, "Our rule is to follow judicial inquiries, we don't do our own.") That honor belongs to reporters like Hervé Liffran at the weekly Canard Enchaîné, who broke the story of voting fraud in Paris by computer-assisted analysis of voter lists. The authors are right in suggesting that Plenel's many imitators, at Le Monde and elsewhere, have inherited his legendary aggressiveness without his talent or his network of highly-placed sources. The result — just as in the U.S. when every cub reporter was a wannabe Woodstein — is a bullying, superficial brand of exposés. Not for nothing do opinion surveys show that public confidence in the veracity of media reports is sinking in France.

Do the authors map a better future for French journalism? Not really, though Péan could have. He practices a method based on the patient gathering and analysis of public information, followed by the cultivation of targeted source relationships leading to material held outside the state. His past exploits include beating Plenel to the documented facts about Mitterrand's past as an official of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime. But he makes an odd match with Cohen, who belongs to the old polemical tradition of French reporting. Cohen's hand shows in a fourteen-page chapter comparing Le Monde's published accounts to Enron's, based largely on an anonymous financier's brutal opinions, at a moment when Le Monde is considering selling shares on the Paris stock exchange. If this is the future of French investigative reporting, it's no improvement.

Has this book changed anything? It has for me. In 1995 I withheld suing Le Monde after it ran a review of one of my investigative books. The review, by a staff writer who was criticized in the work, began with an invented quote and was capped by accusations that key passages were either "fictive" or politically motivated. He did not mention my criticism of him to his readers, and Le Monde never published my reply. But how could I prosecute a journal that did so much to make my own investigative work in France possible? Next time, I'll follow the example of Colombani, Minc, and Plenel. The bad smell in this book isn't due only to the garbage that should have been dumped before publication. Le Monde is not quite as bad as the authors say, but that isn't much of a compliment. We who live in France have lost a public good, and God knows when we will get it back.

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