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The crisis at Le Monde: the inside story

By Doug Ireland, ILCA Online, 24 November 2004

Le Monde—once considered France's pre-eminent daily, its newspaper of reference, a must-read in every European capital, and one of the planet's most prestigious publications—is in the throes of a profound crisis.

Today's edition of the Parisian daily Liberation reports on the latest chapter in the crisis at Le Monde: rumors that its editor-in-chief, Edwy Plenel, could lose his job; a debt of 135 million Euros, with losses just this year of 35 million Euros; and, in consequence, a recapitalization of the newspaper that could bring in new investors who might threaten anew its legendary independence.

But the roots of the crisis began over a year ago, with the publication of a best-selling book that left the reputation of Le Monde for probity and rigor in its reporting in tatters, the ethics of the trio who today edit and control Le Monde under ferocious attack as unworthy of the leadership of a great daily, and its circulation in freefall as more and more once-loyal readers came to the conclusion that the six-decades old paper they loved and respected had lost its soul.

The crisis burst onto the public scene in a cloak-and-dagger ambiance worthy of a John LeCarre novel. On February 19, 2003 the weekly L'Express (roughly the French equivalent of Time) took the unusual step of advancing its normal publication date by a day to publish excerpts from an explosive new book, La face cachee du Monde (The hidden face of Le Monde, Editions Mille et Une Nuits).

The 630-page blockbuster had been prepared and published in great secrecy, for fear of economic and journalistic blackmail to prevent or censor its publication by Le Monde's high command (whom the books subtitle accused of abuse of power). Indeed, the book's publisher, Claude Durand—head of Fayard, of which Mille et Une Nuits is a subsidiary— took the extraordinary precaution of having the book printed in Spain, both to maintain pre-publication secrecy and to avoid any possible sabotage attempts—by, among others, the CGT du Livre, the printers' union whose allegiance to the current Le Monde leadership had been purchased with lucrative sweetheart contracts for its members (long Communist-dominated, the union had such censorious conduct in its history).

The Hidden Face of Le Monde, which overnight became a runaway best-seller, commanded widespread attention because it bore one of France's most prestigious bylines: that of Pierre Pean, unquestionably the most important brand-name in France for quality investigative journalism. Given the often compromised and malleable nature of much of the French press, Pean—to preserve his independence—has always published his meticulous inquests in book form.

Pean's many best-sellers include at least two books which changed French history: Une jeunesse francaise (Fayard, 1994), which made headlines when it revealed the reactionary and collaborationist past of the late Socialist President Francois Mitterand (including his long postwar friendship with Vichy's former police head, Rene Bousquet, responsible for sending trainloads of Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps); and Vies et morts de Jean Moulin (Fayard, 1998), which at long last unraveled the mystery of the death of the heroic French resistance leader at the hands of the war criminal Klaus Barbie, a martyrdom whose cause was only hinted at in Marcel Ophuls Oscar-winning Hotel Terminus, and Claude Berris film Lucie Aubrac (Pean demonstrated how Moulin's capture was, in fact, orchestrated by reactionary elements of the resistance who hated both Moulins patron De Gaulle and his then-allies, the Communists).

Pean had been working on his investigation of Le Monde for a year when he learned that Philippe Cohen, who heads the Economy desk at the iconoclastic centrist weekly Marianne, was preparing a similar book.

At the suggestion of publisher Durand, the two decided to join forces as co-authors.

In their book, Pean and Cohen delivered a devastating indictment of the tandem who now edit the paper: Jean-Marie Colombani, formerly the paper's chief political reporter/editor, who became Le Monde's CEO; and Edwy Plenel, a former police reporter who became the first head of its special investigations department, and who now directs day-to-day the paper's editorial side.

They were a political odd couple. Colombani, of Corsican origin, a moderate social-Christian, soft-spoken and courteous, started as a television reporter and later built his career covering the arriere-cuisines of French politics and cultivating politicians.

Plenel is a sulfurous, intense, and temperamental autodidact, and of the two is the more talented and facile writer. He got his training in politics and journalism when, after his lycee (high school) graduation, he became a staffer for the publications of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), the largest of France's three principal Trotskyist sects, where comrade Krasny (Plenel's code name in the movement) stayed for a decade before joining Le Monde.

The two took control of Le Monde in a 1994 putsch that brought them to power. Le Monde had always been unique among the worlds great dailies because its legendary founder, Hubert Beuve-Mery, wanted to insure that journalists would always control the paper, and gave them—through the association of Le Monde journalists called the Societe des Redacteurs (SDR)—control of a majority of stock and the right to choose the papers directeur, or CEO, by election. Colombani had been plotting to take over the paper since the 80s, when he first presented himself for the paper s top post—and lost. In 1994, he finally won—with the help of the equally ambitious Plenel. No sooner had Colombani and Plenel taken control of the paper—which was operating at a loss—than they recapitalized it through a deal in which the SDR ceded majority control of the papers stock. The unique journalists newspaper thus became a business like any other, the SDR retaining a blocking one-third of the stock (a veto, however, which—under the iron rule of Colombani/Plenel—has so far not been used).

Colombani and Plenel's partner in the financial restructuring of Le Monde was a free-market, anti-Statist propagandist for laisser-faire economics: Alain Minc, a pricey corporate consultant, best-selling author, and former industrialist who—despite having lost billions for a holding company he ran for the Italian magnate Carlo De Benedetti—had an unrivaled network of financial contacts and interests and a privileged position as counselor to France's conservative governments and politicians. In the followup to the Colombani-Plenel putsch, Minc became Le Monde's chairman of the board.

To many at the paper—long firmly anchored in the humanist left—Minc's arrrival was like putting the fox in charge of watching the chicken coop. (Not long ago, Minc was convicted in the French courts of flagrantly plagiarizing a university professor's book about Spinoza for one of his own—and ordered to pay a whopping 100,000 francs in damages).

Within two years of taking power, Colombani and Plenel (with Minc's support) had replaced virtually the entire editorial hierarchy with liegemen of their own choosing. United by their common thirst for power—not just over Le Monde, but the power to dictate France's social, cultural, and political agenda—the trio first tried to choose the countrys next president. For the 1995 presidential campaign to succeed the ailing Mitterand, they turned the newspaper into a propaganda organ for the colorless, right-wing technocrat Edouard Balladur, long the right hand of Jacques Chirac, who became Chirac's rival for leadership of France's conservatives. (Minc was one of Balladur's most prominent advisors). It was a shocking choice for many, both inside and outside the paper. And not just the paper's editorials and op-ed pages were put at the service of Balladur—so too were its news columns. But Balladur turned out to be a wet firecracker—he lost ignominiously to Chirac.

To revive the paper's stagnant circulation and anchor their agenda-making political power, Colombani and Plenel have used Le Monde's front page to hype a series of scandals and scoops, often using headlines that promised more than the articles delivered. Rumors that later proved to be unfounded were presented as if they were established fact. Many of the papers investigations were quite shallow, frequently based more on leaks from friendly politicians and bureaucrats than on real journalistic legwork. This led to a state of affairs in which certain political figures useful to the papers leadership were considered untouchable, and benefited from highly indulgent treatment in the news columns. Among those pols: two hard-line conservative, law-and-order Ministers of the Interior, the unappetizing Charles Pasqua (ex-leader in the 60s of the paramilitary Gaullist strong-arm service, the SAC; and minister in the 80s and 90s; indicted earlier this year on corruption charges stemmming from illegal arms sales), and the hyperambitious Balladurian Nicholas Sarkozy. (Already preparing his presidential campaign for 2007, for which the opinion polls show him in the lead, Sarkozy was just this month elected chairman of the ruling UMP—the Union for a Presidential Majority—the conservative party created for Chirac).

One of the more startling revelations of Pean and Cohen's book: the incestuous relationship between Plenel and Bernard Delaplace, the head of the police union during the Mitterand years and so powerful that he was known as the second cop in France, after the Interior Minister.

Unknown to Le Monde's readers, Plenel served as Deleplace's political and media counselor, ghostwriter, and de facto editor of the union's journal. In return, Deleplace asked police, when they weren't officially working, to perform investigations on behalf of the Le Monde journalist, the cops were paid for their moonlighting in cash, wrote Pean/Cohen, and the results helped advance Plenel's reputation as one of France's most ferocious investigative journalists. At the same time, Plenel used his Le Monde articles to promote and defend Delaplace. (Delaplace was eventually revealed to be a crook who took kickbacks from industry in the form of exorbitant commissions on ads in the union journal, and was forced to resign in disgrace in 1990 to avoid prosecution and prison—a fact which Le Monde to this day has yet to publish).

One of the more successful of Plenel's investigations concerned the hidden Trotskyist past of Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister from 1997-2002, which Jospin long denied (claiming he was being confused with his brother.) Plenel/Krasny, who even today calls himself a cultural Trotskyist, unearthed a raft of witnesses who swore that Jospin had been sent into the Socialist Party as a mole by the International Communist Organization (OCI), the most secretive, paranoid, and Bolshevik of the Trot sects (known as the Lambertistes after their pseudonymous leader, Pierre Lambert). Jospin continued to have intimate relations with the Lambertistes long after the newly elected Mitterand named Jospin to replace him as the head of the Socialist Party—a duplicity which Plenel exposed and denounced in Le Monde, and which destroyed Jospins reputation and credibility in advance of the 2002 presidential campaign (in which Jospin—who finally admitted his Trot past— was edged out of the runoff by the neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen).

Although Plenel, in a book of memoirs of his youth, claimed to have broken with the Trots of the LCR in the early 80s, Pean/Cohen assert that Plenel continued his intimate association with the LCR into the 90s—and was thus guilty of the same deception for which the journalist had pilloried Jospin in the pages of Le Monde. Indeed, one of those who became a frequent Le Monde essayist after Colombani and Plenel took power was Daniel Ben-Said, the LCRs chief ideological theorist (who was presented to Le Monde's readers as an education expert with no reference to his sectarian credentials). Plenel recruited and promoted many current and former ex-Trots and put them in key positions to insure his tight control over the newsroom—three of his five principal assistant editors are now from that Trot constellation. At the same time, the new Le Monde has given prominent place as associate editorialists to the likes of the ubiquitous neo-con intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, and the prophet of globalization and untrammeled free-market economics Jean-Claude Casanova, one of the maitres a penser of the hard right. The Trots Plenel hired weren't brought in for their ideology, but for their Leninist modus operandi and loyalty to the chief (i.e., Plenel).

Only the paper's foreign affairs department, long a sort of independent kingdom within the Le Monde empire, has managed, for the most part, to guard most of its prideful independence from management interference without seeing its integrity questioned.

Colombani, too, was compromised when Pean/Cohen revealed that he had taken gifts and cash to help train for TV appearances a rising star of right-wing politics, then-Mayor of Lyon Michel Noir (chased from office and indicted in a campaign finance scandal). Colombani filed a suit for defamation against Noirs bagman, Pierre Botton, for making those claims; the courts ruled against Colombani. Equally unsettling was the revelation that Le Monde had billed the national press cooperative that distributes newspapers, the NMPP, for a million francs for lobbying by Colombani and others to get the Jospin government to accord more subsidies to the press. Le Monde later reimbursed the NMPP for nearly half the fee it received- an act interpreted in other daily papers as an admission of guilt.

Another chapter in the Pean-Cohen book accused Le Monde of having accounts like Enron's, of having sunk Le Monde deeper and deeper into debt, in a frenetic Colombani drive to become a mini Murdoch and create a powerful press group by gobbling up dailies and weeklies all across France. He's now succeeded in his goal with his latest acquisition, last year swallowing the treasury-rich press group La Vie Catholique, which includes the cash-cow entertainment weekly Telerama, and a raft of other publishing and real estate goodies. But, while Le Monde/LVC, as the new group is known, is now one of France's three largest press conglomerates, the acquisition only added another enormous layer of debt to the already financially troubled flagship paper of the group.

These are only a few of the many serious (and complicated) de-ontological crimes and questionable financial maneuvers which have been laid at the door of Le Monde's chiefs. The trio who run Le Monde have consistently refused to debate Pean and Cohen in public or on television since the publication of their book. Nor have they ever made a response on the real substance of the charges leveled against them, either in Le Monde or elsewhere—that they have perverted a once-great newspaper and put it at the service of their personal ambitions and enrichment.

Instead, Colombani and Plenel have engaged in a campaign of character assassination against their persecutors, accusing them of, among other things, anti-Semitism (a laughable assertion, which the daily Liberation editorially ridiculed as unworthy of Le Monde).

One cannot govern without Le Monde, ex-Prime Minister Jospin famously said. Until Pean and Cohen's book, there was precious little criticism of Le Monde in the French press—fear of retribution from the newspaper that had become a true counter-power in France was the reason. But over the ensuing year since the Pean/Cohen indictment broke the silence, an avalanche of other books—some of them by former Le Monde colleagues of Colombani and Plenel—have confirmed and reinforced the dark picture painted by Pean/Cohen of a regime which, hungry for and drunk on power, has swept aside the most elemental journalistic rules of ethical conduct.

One of Le Monde's best-known bylines belonged to its longtime TV columnist, Daniel Schneiderman, who also hosts a weekly TV program of media criticism. In Le cauchemar mediatique (The media nightmare, Editions Denoel), a book about media feeding frenzies published in the Fall of '03, Schneiderman devoted a chapter to the Le Monde crisis. In it he expressed his disagreement with the papers TV-imitative sensationalism, criticized the authoritarian atmosphere that reigns in the city room, and argued powerfully against the censure by Colombani/Plenel of a column by the papers Ombudsman, Robert Sole, in which Sole had called for transparency and letting the light shine on the facts marshaled by Pean/Cohen. When Schneiderman tried to get Colombani/Plenel to debate Pean/Cohen on his TV show, Plenel screamed at him, Youre either inside or outside, Schneiderman! Well, Schneiderman is now outside—after his book appeared, he was fired by Colombani/Plenel.

Criticize Le Monde and clouds of banishment appear above your head, wrote Daniel Carton, a former colleague of Colombani's on the Le Monde political desk, in Bien entendu c'est off (You understand, thats off the record, Editons Albin Michel), in which he recounts the papers unnatural marriage with Balladur that led him to leave it. (According to the monthly business magazine Capital, Carton was forced into softening or eliminating some criticisms of the new Le Monde regime before his book's publication, after Colombani put pressure on both author and publisher).

Alain Rollat was a veteran of more than a quarter century at Le Monde, where hed held key editorial and management posts. A longtime friend of Colombani, Rollat was the central artisan of the putsch that made Colombani Le Mondes CEO, the organizing of which he recounts in Ma part du Monde (Editions de Paris), the book he published last year after leaving the paper in disillusionment at its ethical decline.

Rollat bitterly regrets his role in the putsch; he believes that Colombani is lost in the vertigo of power, and that his expansionist appetite for swallowing up other publications on credit is dooming the paper. Recalling that his old friend Colombani's salary has increased 330% in eight years, in his open letter to Colombani Rollat told him that The bank is so present behind you that your empire is in reality nothing more than a house of cards.

Some non-Le Monde journalists in France have criticized the Pean/Cohen book for its prosecutorial tone. But last Fall, another new book, Le pouvoir du Monde (The power of Le Monde, Editions La Decouverte), by Bernard Poulet, a senior editor at the economic weekly LExpansion (the proximate French equivalent of Business Week), offered a nonacrimonious but equally damning portrait of the papers ethical deviations by dissecting and deconstructing, one after the other, the front-paged false scoops and phony debates that are the product of what he describes as Le Monde's lurch into infotainment.

And Gilbert Comte, a retired Le Monde veteran trained to practice a rigorous brand of journalism by Beuve-Mery, the paper's founder, published Lettre Enfin Ouverte Au Directeur du Monde (Editions du Alpha), berating Colombani and his team for their reckless deviations from the principles that made the paper great. And this list of books critical of the new Le Monde is by no means exhaustive.

Readers haven't liked what's happened to their newspaper, either. In the first three months after Pean/Cohens book appeared, news-stand sales declined by 4% (the Iraq war and the consequent thirst for information prevented a sharper decline). But, after that war had ended its first phase, the evaporation of the papers once-shining reputation sent sales slaloming downward: they were off 10% in September, 12% in October, and 12% in November of last year. And the circulation slide has continued since then, bringing with it the staggering 35 milllion Euro loss in the last year.

Can Le Monde survive the unlikely infernal trio of Colombani, the empire-builder; Plenel/Krasny, the cultural Trotskyist; and Minc, the plagiarizing capitalist fixer and hymn-singer to globalization? Ive talked to a number of smart editors at other publications in Paris who believe that the real reason Minc has encouraged Colombani on his expansionist, ever-more debt-ridden course has been to place Le Monde in such a financial pickle that Minc can ride to the rescue as the papers savior, snap it up at a bargain price on behalf of France's patronat (the most powerful business barons), and install himself as its sole and undisputed master. The turmoil that Liberation reports today on the Rue Claude Bernard—the Paris street where Le Monde has its headquarters—suggests that fear of this scenario, given the impending recapitalization of the paper, is widespread among the paper's many fine journalists who still work there. If it happens, it will be the final, fatal blow to this once-great daily paper's independence.