'Le Monde' will never be the same

For French newspaper readers, the world will never be the same. Their journalistic bible, Le Monde, is close to bankruptcy. Last week employees struck for two days over editor Andre Laurens' plan to wrench the venerable institution out of its problems. Tuesday the paper's owners - its journalists - rejected the plan and Mr. Laurens resigned.

''The state of the company, at the end of 1984, is worse than earlier foreseen,'' Laurens told shareholders in a report made public this week. Circulation has dropped bynearly 100,000 over the past five years and the paper, which has made losses since 1982, is heavily in debt.

Le Monde's immediate problems are financial, but they represent a larger identity crisis. The paper's austere layout has not changed since it first appeared in 1944. Its news pages have no photographs and its writing belongs more to the 19th than the 20th century.

In the 1960s and '70s, the paper's circulation rose to 435,000. ''Must'' reading, it set France's political and intellectual agenda.

No longer. The brash daily Liberation has taken away much of Le Monde's youthful readership.

Le Monde's leftist orientation has hurt its reputation with the general public.

''Liberation is witty, serious, and complete,'' says Christian Fauvet, political editor of the newsweekly L'Express. ''Le Monde, on the other hand, is biased and boring.''

Le Monde's editorial problems were exacerbated by runaway costs and bad management. The paper has not computerized. In the 1970s the paper invested in costly conventional printing presses that were obsolete before they were installed.

Moreover, in its more prosperous days, the paper had added staff at high salaries at an alarming rate. At present it has 180 reporters - and 1,250 other employees.

Laurens wanted to correct these imbalances. He proposed salary cuts, selling the paper's offices near the Opera, and facsimile printing. When the nonjournalistic staff declared the first strike in the paper's history, the overwhelming majority of the journalists said no.

On Dec. 21, the journalists are to meet to select a new editor. Many are said to be pushing to hire an experienced executive versed in wage negotiations and the financial side of publishing.

In any case, the paper may soon have no choice but to declare itself bankrupt. That does not mean the end of Le Monde.

Under French law, it could start up again under the control of an administrator appointed by its banks or by the government.

But the world of Le Monde will never be the same.

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