J'Accuse: New Book Attacks Le Monde as 'Modern-day Pravda'

Jean-Marie Colombani, Edwy Plenel, and Alain Minc
Le Monde Editor in Chief Edwy Plenel (R), Editorial Manager Jean-Marie Colombani (C), and chairman of the board of supervisors Alain Minc (Photo: Joel Robine/AFP).

Does France’s newspaper of record exercise real-world power off the editorial pages? That is the thesis of a new book accusing Le Monde of influence peddling, blackmail, and political intrigue. Sold out within hours of publication, La Face Cachée du Monde (The Dark Side of Le Monde) has unleashed France’s biggest media storm in recent memory.

For decades, Le Monde has investigated the powers-that-be in French society and pointed the finger, sometimes with devastating impact, at their misconduct. The authors, Pierre Péan and Philippe Cohen, say it is time to turn the tables.

A war of words broke out on France’s TV and radio stations and editorial pages when extracts from The Dark Side, which was printed in great secrecy in Spain, appeared before its publication in the centrist L’Express. “Behind the facade of journalistic idealism is a lust for power,” wrote editor Denis Jeambar.

Dark Side’s accusations concern the three men who have run Le Monde since 1994: Jean-Marie Colombani, the editorial manager, Edwy Plenel, the editor in chief, and Alain Minc, chairman of the board of supervisors. The authors claim these men hijacked a great newspaper, transforming it into a “modern-day Pravda” where “the management seems to be fixed on one strategic aim: to control by intimidation, alliance, or vassalage the pressure points of society.”

“Colombani and Plenel will not be able to just brush off such a book,” commented Libération, France’s rival left-wing daily. “Nor will they be able to avoid answering the fundamental charges.”

Le Canard Enchainé, the weekly that pioneered investigative reporting in France, notes that the book, “despite its aggressive tone,” is still “a litany of facts, testimony, and documents that form a rude indictment. . . . [In responding to the book,] the managers of Le Monde did not answer the essential question, beyond all the polemics: What ties does Le Monde have or not have with major French companies and their managers?”

If the most serious allegations are true, Minc and Colombani compromised the integrity of Le Monde in secret deals with NMPP (Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne), a press distribution company that enjoys a near monopoly of the French market, and Shibsted, a Norwegian company that launched a free newspaper in France. Last but not least, the management is said to have employed Enron-style tricks to cover up Le Monde’s imminent bankruptcy. The paper has responded to this last charge by publishing its accounts.

Some of the purported actions are strangely out of sync with Le Monde’s status as a mouthpiece for the left wing. If the authors are to be believed, Colombani and Plenel assiduously, but unsuccessfully, promoted the careers of right-wing politicians Edouard Balladur and Charles Pasqua and covered up evidence of the latter’s corruption.

France’s leading newspaper supported former Socialist Prime Minister Jospin like “a rope holds up a hanged man,” the book alleges. Targeting important members of Jospin’s administration in its investigations, Le Monde ultimately contributed to the prime minister’s downfall, the authors suggest, and the electoral success of right-wing extremist Le Pen.

To scoop Jospin’s youthful involvement with the radical Trotskyite movement, Plenel, it is claimed, offered one of Jospin’s biographers a job at Le Monde in exchange for evidence. Plenel, a former Trotskyite himself, is even said to have “freelanced” for the CIA (the evidence is a single remark by former President Francois Mitterrand, reported posthumously).

Dark Side asserts that Colombani, who is Corsican, flexed his editorial muscles in support of Jospin’s plan to grant the island independence and, much less plausibly, that articles published in Le Monde tippped off Yvan Colonna, a Corsican nationalist wanted for murder, of his impending arrest.

Before joining forces, the two authors had set out independently to write their own investigation of Le Monde. This collaboration could account for its length (632 pages) and mix of investigative reporting, philosophy, and polemic. Claims that can be proven true or false (such as “peddling influence”), are juxtaposed with others that seem far-fetched (the editors “hate France”).

Le Monde’s first line of defense was to deplore Dark Side as an emotional outburst. “Criticism is one thing, passion is another,” an editorial stated, “Hate is the saddest of all passions.” The March 6 edition produced a more detailed response, citing “1,001 errors” in names, dates, and job titles (Colombani is not a CEO, and so on), and offering refutations of some of the accusations.

But the real counteroffensive is legal. The Society of the Editors of Le Monde, an association of employees that is the newspaper’s biggest shareholder, has instructed its lawyers to sue the authors, their publisher, and L'Express for libel.

The authors of Dark Side and the management of Le Monde agree on one thing: The courts will have the final word.