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By Louis WiznitzerSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 1980

United Nations, N.Y.

For many years the French daily Le Monde was considered by many the best newspaper in the world because of the accuracy of its reporting, its understated and purist style, the amount of space devoted to foreign and cultural affairs, and the unparalleled expertise of its staff.

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No paper -- not even the New York Times or The Times of London -- has played a role as fundamental to the evolution of a national society and to the policy choices of its elite as has Le Monde since it was founded in 1944.

Over the last 10 years Le Monde has tripled in volume. It often contains 48 pages each day -- covering food, transportation, fashion, tourism, and education as well as foreign, domestic, economic, and cultural news. Its daily sales have grown from 140,000 in 1944 to 600,000 today (with 1.5 million readers worldwide). In many ways it looks like a French version of the New York Times.

While it remains a commercial success, Le Monde has lost some of its punch and is becoming a respectable, mild, authoritative, and basically conservative newspaper. Le Monde may be battling against President Giscard d'Estaing and his coalition of right-of-center independents and conservative Gaullists, but every day it is becoming less a left-of-center journal of opinion and more a mirror of the French establishment.

Today, it is considered only one of many excellent European newspapers such as the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, The Times of London, Corriere della Sera (Milan, Italy), Die Welt (Hamburg), and the Journal de Geneve.

Now Le Monde has come to a crucial turning point in its distinguished history: Its staff of 180 must elect a new publisher on May 15. At stake is not just the question of personal qualities of the future directeurm of the most prestigious French newspaper, but the function, and even to some extent the ideological trend of Le Monde as well.

Le Monde's attempt to have the staff elect its own publisher is certainly a unique experience in democracy. It is being closely watched and widely contested in france. For the last 18 months, in view of the coming elections, clans have been formed inside the paper. Bitter personal rivalries, disguised as ideological conflicts or as differences over the concept of modern journalism's role, have come to the surface.

The May elections will be the third attempt in six months to elect a new publisher. TWice before, in December and in March, none of the candidates (all of them specialized in foreign affairs) received the necessary 60 percent of the votes.

But even if the next round of elections ushers in Claude Julien, publisher of Le Monde Diplomatique, a fiercely anti-American monthly; Alain Jacob, Le Monde's Peking correspondent; Michel Tatu, the Washington correspondent; or Paul Fabra, head of the economic section, the bitterness of the campaign is sure to make itself felt for years to come. According to many Le Monde staffers themselves, it is also sure to have a negative impact on the functioning of the paper, "which," they say, "has been a hotbed of agitation and of unrest for 18 months and may turn into a den of vengeful plots."

If neither candidate receives 60 percent of the vote, an outsider will be brought in -- the name most often pronounced being that of Claude Cheysson, a socialist-leaning, independent, highly respected civil servant.

Since the beginning of the 19th century bourgeois France has always had one daily paper which addressed itself to its political and cultural elite. Technically speaking, Le Monde was born as the successor of Le Temps -- which professionally and politically resembled The Times of London as a twin brother during the 1930s. Like The Times, Le Temps was modarately conservative, extremely serious and highbrow. It was the official organ of the establishment unfortunately, like its sister paper on the Thames, it believed stubbornly that Hitler was a man of peace and compromise. Later it supported Marechal Petain and stopped publication in 1942.