Libération, the French newspaper that emerged from the legendary 1968 student protests, is on the brink of extinction. In June, after more than a year of mounting losses, chief shareholder Edouard de Rothschild, son of an old European banking family, forced out editor in chief Serge July, one of the paper’s co-founders, with Sartre. Since then, a publisher selected by Rothschild and an editor chosen by the news staff have shared power in a temporary arrangement. In October the paper went into a six-month “procedure of safeguard”–France’s version of Chapter 11.
Libération‘s troubles are the result of changes both in the media world and at the paper. Once the voice of the antiestablishment, Libération has in recent years drifted closer to the political center. Its core readers are an aging segment of the French left, most of whom regard Libé, as it is affectionately called, as a symbol of their identity rather than an essential morning read.
Libé‘s financial woes are not unique. The crisis affecting newspapers worldwide is particularly acute in France, where readers have little appetite for daily papers compared with their counterparts in much of Western Europe and the United States. It’s not that they are uninterested in political and social reporting and analysis; France ranks number one in the world in terms of the percentage of people who read newsmagazines. But it drops to 31 percent in the percentage of daily newspaper readers.
This situation is due in part to the nature of France’s major general-interest papers, which are edited in Paris and considered national, a perspective that the non-Parisian French often resent. The combined readership of the three major nationals, Libération, Le Figaro and Le Monde, is some 786,000. (By contrast, one of New York City’s three daily newspapers has a circulation just under 700,000; the other two are well above.) For a French newspaper to succeed, it has to offer something particular: The nationals have always offered a guaranteed point of view. Le Figaro is the paper read by the right, Le Monde the paper read by the left. Libération, with about half the circulation of the other two, has traditionally served the far left.
Libé began in 1973, with Sartre and “Citizen July” at the helm. As former members of a radical left-wing Maoist group that decided print was a better way than protests to fulfill their aims, July and the team stayed true to their roots and made it the people’s paper. Today, Libé is a tabloid whose cover usually features a provocative photo illustrating the main story, often the human side of a current issue, or an investigative story, although perhaps not what other papers consider the day’s lead news. Its photos are striking and numerous, and the writing is accessible, with few of the labyrinthine sentences that characterize Le Monde.
Its attraction to France’s large intellectual class has been its politics. Yet as July aged and moved toward the center, so did Libération. When in May of last year Libé encouraged its readers to vote for acceptance of the European Constitution even as polls showed that most people opposed it, readers saw this as a sign that Libé had lost its way. The question then became whether it differed enough from Le Monde to be worth spending roughly the equivalent of another $1.50 a day on it.