The death of freedom

By Agnès Poirier, a former UK correspondent for Libération (THE GUARDIAN, 28/09/06):

Today you bought the Guardian – or perhaps you are reading it online. Once it may have been the Independent. It is probable that on Sundays, sifting through the mountains of papers at your newsagent’s, you often reach for the Observer. Imagine that very soon – in less than a year, say – you won’t be able to buy any of these newspapers. Imagine a Britain where readers such as you have to choose between the Times or the Daily Telegraph.

That is the nightmare France is soon going to face, as the days of Libération, the country’s only leftwing daily newspaper, are numbered. “I give it a year,” said journalist and media analyst Philippe Cohen.

Founded in 1973 by angry young men who had embraced politics in the tumultuous year of 1968, Libération became the quintessence of the French left and was long revered throughout the world for its innovative take on news, criticism and photojournalism. Some think its impending demise is a scandal, but many won’t be crying – including those for whom its decline symbolises a loss of direction among the 1968 generation.

“While its readers matured and settled down, the paper continued to beat the drums of revolt,” says Jacques Buob, an editor for the centre-left to centre-right Le Monde. For Philippe Cohen, today’s situation is the outcome of an acute, irremediable contradiction: “To compensate, and, in a way, apologise for the fact that the paper adopted neoliberal economics, it remained ultra-left in all its social concerns, refusing to address the complex questions of, for instance, immigration, security and education, and preferring to throw abuse at anybody daring to criticise years of leftwing self-indulgence.”

Others, such as Vincent Rémy, editor of the political and arts weekly Télérama and a Libération subscriber since 1973, think conformism stifled the legendary paper. In explaining the crisis, all also invoke structural weaknesses in the newspaper industry in France, with its archaic distribution monopoly backed by the omnipotence of the communist-sympathising press trade union.

Beyond the arguments about whether it deserves such a fate, Libération’s tragedy reflects that of the French left. Its deputy editor, Pierre Haski, says: “The no to the referendum on the European constitution, against which our editor Serge July campaigned all along, proved to be our nemesis and that of the French left. The Socialist party imploded and so did we. Many of our readers felt betrayed.” As in 1995, during the winter strikes, many on the left failed to understand the growing fracture between the people and its left-leaning elite.

So, eight months before the presidential elections, who today caters for the French left? Who dissects and analyses facts and news for the voters of the left? “This is not the right question to ask”, says Alain Frachon of Le Monde. “There is no room in France any more for an opinion-based press. The French are so volatile, they get rid of their government every two years; it would be very difficult to try to follow their mood swings, let alone tell them what to think.”

So best be a daily like Le Monde, seeking out the middle ground by constantly oscillating between the laissez-faire left and the liberal right?

Why shouldn’t there be room for enlightened and well-articulated radical views, for complex opinions rather than simplistic analyses? The success of Marianne shows there is hope. This news weekly has won many readers with its iconoclastic views, anchored in the left. Many deride it as being populist. In fact, it is only populaire – “of the people”. But taking such a stand requires political coherence and courage.