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As France turns, so turns Le Monde

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1985


The fire alarm blared and someone yelled ``bomb alert.'' Andr'e Fontaine stayed calm. Almost nonchalantly, Le Monde's new editor proceeded to the front door where in a soft voice he welcomed the police and watched employees evacuate the building.

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No bomb was found, but the low-key manner in which Mr. Fontaine handled the scare shows how he hopes to defuse the explosive situation threatening Le Monde, France's most prestigious paper. In recent years, the institution that decisively shaped French intellectual and political life since the end of World War II has fallen on hard times, both financially and editorially.

Along with modernizing business management, the most important long-term reform Mr. Fontaine envisages is dropping the old polemical style in favor of a more balanced, objective stance. He believes that the days when Frenchmen fought battles over ideology are finished.

``The great majority of French don't want any more civil wars,'' he says. ``There is a consensus forming in this country that goes beyond party.''

He points to the decline of the French Communist Party and the conservative economic program of the Mitterrand government as signs of the country's increased pragmatism.

Instead of a bold charismatic leader, Fontaine suggests that his calming style may be more effective for the newspaper. Ever since he took over, the world of Le Monde seems just a bit better prepared to defuse its explosive problems.

After bitter bickering the staff chose Fontaine as editor last month as a compromise candidate. A staff member since 1949, he is considered one of the most distinguished commentators in French journalism. Now he hopes to use his analytical abilities to calm the tensions and end the decline.

``We cannot change too quickly, too abruptly as to lose our identity,'' Fontaine said in an interview. Dressed in a casual sweater and open shirt, he exuded a tranquil confidence in his large, rather dowdily furnished, office. ``But we must modernize. Our reporting must become less partisan and subjective and our style clearer, simpler, and easier to read.''

This caution has meant continuing Le Monde's serious tone and absence of photos on the news pages. But it has also meant a less cluttered front page. The old patchwork quilt of six or seven articles has been replaced by a layout that gives prominent display to only three, with a box at the bottom of the page signposting the major news stories inside.

It has also translated into simplifying the paper's long-winded, Proustian prose and dense professorial pieces. Already, the editor says he has sent articles back to their authors asking that they be cut in half.

On the business side, Fontaine rejects his predecessor's plans to move immediately to modern, facsimile printing and to sell the paper's stately headquarters on the Rue des Italiens near the Paris Opera. But he has appointed a professional business manager, cut salaries by 10 percent, and declared that for the first time the paper will accept outside minority shareholders. By next month, he hopes to have ready a plan that would shut down one of the paper's outdated presses, eventually permitting the office building to be sold.

Whether these moves will be sufficient to ensure a bright future for Le Monde remains unclear. Jacques Bouzerand of the newsweekly Le Point expresses the common view that Fontaine ``has the aura and prestige to be director.'' The remaining uncertainty is whether the paper needs a stronger jolt.