Le Monde Denounced

Jean-Marie Colombani, Edwy Plenel, and Alain Minc have betrayed the values of Le Monde, the newspaper they run. That’s the argument developed in the new, hotly controversial book written by Pierre Péan and Philippe Cohen and published by Fayard. Le Monde is reacting to the book as a political attack and is filing suit for defamation.

I may as well say it right away: This is a hard article to write. Pierre Péan is both a friend and a tough, unyielding journalist. Le Monde, a newspaper where I have many friends, has established ties with Le Nouvel Observateur, at the bidding of their president and ours—ties that suit Le Monde but which worry our editors. [In spring 2002, Claude Perdriel, who controls Le Nouvel Observateur, announced that Le Monde was taking a 6-percent stake in a new Nouvel Observateur holding company, and Nouvel Observateur an equivalent stake in Le Monde.—WPR]

On top of all this, Le Monde’s editors aren’t making things any easier: In the face of the “campaign” they claim is being drummed up against their paper, they’re demanding that everyone take sides. Le Monde, in its Feb. 26 edition, began a vigorous counterattack.

Good grief! It looks like the only way out for somebody who wants to deal with the issue—like me—is to stick strictly to the facts. So to begin with, there isn’t any “campaign.” The idea of a book about Le Monde, not as the establishment watchdog that it was, but as the power center it has become—written in an abrupt, non-collegial manner—has been separately on the minds of Péan and Cohen for a long time. And they’re not the only ones who’ve been thinking that way, in view of the newspaper’s diversion from its old path—I hope the term “diversion” falls somewhere between Colombani’s favorite word, “evolution,” and the “hijacking” that Péan has attacked.

Neither Serge Dassault, targeted by Le Monde’s editors as the villain because he’s from a rival clan (Dassault controls Le Figaro and L’Express), nor Jean-Luc Lagardère (who wasn’t alerted to what was going on at Fayard, part of his Hachette publishing house) had anything to do with the Péan-Cohen bombshell. And it’s no good, either, trying to make ad hominem arguments against the authors, to label Péan as an anti-Semite because he’s pro-Palestinian, or to dismiss Cohen as a case of sour grapes because he was fired by Le Monde 15 years ago, before returning to the paper as a freelancer.

The authors are up front about their intentions: They wanted to write a partisan book in the form of an accusation, and they have. But this book is complete and exhaustive, even if the top editors of Le Monde will certainly not miss a chance to denounce the odd errors of fact that inevitably make their way into any journalistic enterprise.

Second point: Without making too much of the paradox, it’s important to note that the book is above all a tribute to Le Monde’s authority. No other media outlet in France has ever been dissected in this way, right down to its tiniest capillaries. No other newspaper’s failings, behind-the-scenes dealings, and dubious compromises, were they made public, would cause the whole of France’s journalists to reflect so deeply on their own practices and those of their employers.

Third point: In early 21st-century France, sacred cows are an extinct species. The publication of La Face Cachée du Monde (The Dark Side of Le Monde) on the say-so of Claude Durand, the boss at Fayard, proves that there is now the will and capacity to resist the potential intimidation by the French publishing world’s newspaper of reference—even if that power to intimidate remains so strong that the book’s preparation was accompanied by an unprecedented level of secrecy and security. This shift in the balance of publishing power away from Le Monde marks the limits of the “abuse of power” that the authors both denounce and, paradoxically, mitigate with their weighty accusations. So what are the accusations, exactly? To summarize this hefty tome of 630 pages in a couple of lines, the Monde of founder Hubert Beuve-Méry—which gave a lot of space to international coverage, rejected sensationalism, cultivated a learned asceticism, and earned the unshakeable confidence of its readers—has been hijacked by a power-hungry triumvirate: Jean-Marie Colombani, president and managing director; Edwy Plenel, editor in chief, and their evil genius, Alain Minc, who—as anyone reading the book will understand, even though it isn’t explicitly stated—supposedly exploited his position as chairman of Monde’s supervisory board to pick up contracts from his industrial clients, and in turn exploited his influence with industrialists to firm up his position at Le Monde.

To sum up: Throwing caution to the wind, the book seeks to prove that under the direction of these three men, once they had cleverly modified the corporate bylaws to seal their power, Le Monde was transformed into a lawless, almost Mafia-like enterprise that used blackmail and influence peddling in a style reminiscent of France’s corrupt financial newspapers of the pre-World War II era.

Let’s pass lightly over some of the book’s secondary points—like the reduction of space for international news, Colombani’s big paycheck, Plenel’s heavy-handed management of the newsroom, the overly splashy front pages aimed at selling papers (the death of Princess Diana, the hit TV show “Le Loft”), the newspaper’s backing of the conservative former Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, or the free pass it seems to give the oft-violent Corsican independence movement.

These points are not without interest, but they depend too much on a dubious comparison with a Lost Golden Age at Le Monde. And in fairness, we have to note that the management of the new Monde has re-established a stability the newspaper hadn’t known for years.

And let’s not spend too much time, either, on some of Péan and Cohen’s cattier moments, on the theme of “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” which many readers will find amusing. Thus, the authors accuse Plenel of having “played with the facts” when he said he left the Communist Revolutionary League in 1979, when in fact he was addressing a training course for young Trotskyites as late as 1985. “Plenel has been a hundred times guilty of the sin he attributes to Jospin,” write Péan and Cohen, referring to the far-left political past of Lionel Jospin, France’s prime minister between 1997 and 2002, and Jospin’s attempts to minimize it.

Let’s mention just in passing Péan and Cohen’s analysis that Le Monde, in attacking first François Mitterrand and then Jacques Chirac, and in spilling a lot of ink to denounce political scandals—both real and phoney—has “given the world an image of a France...under the yoke of a corrupt governing elite,” and thus helped foment “a wave of populism that the newspaper itself criticizes,” as Jean-Michel Quatrepoint, a former journalist at Le Monde, wrote in his newsletter, “La Lettre A.”

And finally, let’s give limited space to the authors’ claims that a “hatred for France” is the principal common ground between Colombani, a Christian Democrat, and Plenel, a Trotskyite, and that this tendency comes from their respective fathers, Colombani’s a “paid agent of Mussolini” and Plenel’s a civil servant and activist supporting the independence of Martinique from France.

In fact, a newspaper organizes itself as it wishes, supports whatever causes it desires, and freely chooses its political line; the only qualified judges are its readers, who vote by continuing to buy the paper or not. And from this point of view, the triumvirate has done pretty well. While per-copy sales have declined, overall circulation has risen slightly, even though some of this is due to special promotions that Le Monde used to criticize when its competitors were doing them.

The authors go a bit far when they talk about “Enron-style accounting.” Until proved otherwise, the financial results of the Monde group aren’t falsified, even if the figures that Le Monde publishes are presented in the best possible light. In any case, because Le Monde isn’t a publicly traded company, the comparison with Enron or Vivendi, which both took the public’s money through the stock market, isn’t relevant.

The scandal is there, though, and it lies in Péan and Cohen’s revelations and descriptions of certain questionable practices by Colombani, Plenel, and Minc, most of which were published in excerpts from the book run this past week by L’Express and Le Canard Enchaîné. Colombani and Plenel are accused of having given themselves immunity from the code of conduct governing Le Monde’s journalists, and of doing the opposite of what they preach in their own writing.

Thus, Colombani is accused of selling Le Monde’s integrity, abetted by Minc. After lobbying the Jospin government for an 80-million-franc (US$13.2 million) subsidy for the newspaper distribution company Nouvelles Messageries de la presse parisienne (NMPP), a subsidy that benefited Le Monde more than any other newspaper, Colombani decided that his work was worth the payment to Le Monde of an additional annual fee of 10 percent of the subsidy.

A 1-million-franc invoice for lobbying expenses was sent to NMPP and paid immediately. The remaining 9 million francs was supposed to have been paid through a complex financial transaction that never took place, after one of the NMPP’s accountants threatened to send the file to the attorney general’s office. Even more severe is the chapter about relations between Le Monde and the free newspaper 20 Minutes, because, according to the authors, Colombani, forgetting which of his many hats he had on, wrote an article criticizing giveaway papers when he learned that 20 Minutes, seeking a partner and shareholder, appeared to be dropping Monde in favor of Le Parisien, the popular tabloid.

Plenel is also accused of improperly using his influence. One example: Plenel, along with labor union leader Bernard Deleplace, worked on public relations for the left-leaning FASP (Independent Federation of Police Unions) and helped define its strategy and prepare its summer school before covering the event for Le Monde! But Péan and Cohen are strongest in their criticism of Plenel when they accuse him of using investigative reporting as an “instrument of terror,” chasing after both politicians and corporate bosses with the sole aim of building his own power and that of Le Monde.

Unless Le Monde comes up with a detailed response to the substance of the Péan-Cohen accusations, the blow may be a hard one indeed. Especially since there is one way in which Le Monde hasn’t changed: its habit of presenting itself as a paragon of virtue and a learned professor of morality and good journalism.