Left-wing French daily's 'last chance' rests with capitalists

Libération, a newspaper created following the French student revolt of 1968, is facing a financial crisis.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It was born to be France's daily dose of revolution.

From its first issue in 1973, the iconoclastic newspaper, Libération, proclaimed itself an enemy of the rich. Banks were evil. Making money was bourgeois. It would serve the people, its long-haired founders proclaimed, not act as a slave to business interests.

Libération, created in the heady years following the French student revolt of 1968, is now in the throes of a devastating financial crisis and threatened with major layoffs and a forced restructuring. And those same capitalists and bankers it once detested may be the paper's only saviors.

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The fate of the paper could become clearer in two weeks. Its major stockholder, Edouard de Rothschild, who holds a 38.9 percent stake, said the newspaper has a "last chance" to come up with a plan before the end of October to cut costs and increase earnings. He has already invested €20 million ($25.6 million).

Many employees and loyal readers, speaking of the paper as if it were an unrepentant old hippie fallen on hard times, worry that it may lose its identity if forced by investors to turn a profit.

"I grew up, intellectually, with Libération," says Carole Pourdieu, a 54-year-old Paris schoolteacher who recently dug into her pocket and made a €25 ($33) donation to the newspaper. "It was fresh, new. All of the rest of the media represent corporate interests and I feel we have to save Libé from that."

Libération, a tabloid-sized paper, has long been in a class of its own. Its news columns are often openly sympathetic to illegal immigrants, the homeless, unions, and – to a lesser extent – the Socialist Party. Its front pages called on the French to vote against the far-right wing politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the second round of the 2002 presidential elections.

Like newspapers all over the world, Libération also has been suffering in recent years from stagnant circulation and stiff competition from the Internet and television. It lost €6 million ($7.7 million) in the first half of 2006 and its daily paid readership has dropped to 137,000. Le Figaro and Le Monde, the other two national general interest newspapers, sell about 322,000 copies each.

Late last year, Libé, as it is affectionately known, stopped publishing for several days when its staff went on strike to protest possible layoffs. The cutback plan was shelved temporarily. But that reprieve now appears to be over. At the paper, reporters say they hear rumors of a plan to get rid of as many as one-third of the 280 staff members.

"They want to bone it like a fish," says one journalist, requesting anonymity. "We have to fight."

Mr. Rothschild, a scion of the powerful banking family, forced out the long-serving editor of the paper in the summer. Serge July, the editor who had created Libération along with philosopher-writer Jean-Paul Sartre, said he resigned in hopes that his departure would help save the paper from more radical changes.

Mr. July's exit was covered in the French media as the end of an era, a French version of the Japanese seppuku, or ritual suicide, by a man who represented a more uncorrupted, hopeful France.

Since Mr. July left, some of Libération's best-known reporters have quit, including Florence Aubenas, who was held hostage in Iraq for six months in 2005. They have invoked the "conscience clause" in French law that requires media owners to continue paying the salary of journalists whose honor is offended by the owners' policies or politics.

Ms. Aubenas has said Mr. July's resignation meant that editorial control of the newspaper had shifted, unacceptably, to Mr. Rothschild.

The remaining staff of Libération hopes to rekindle the fervor of its readers to pressure the paper's investors. They have appealed for public donations from Libé loyalists, saying the paper's independence, as well as survival, are at stake.

As of last week, according to the website for the Society of Libération Readers, 221 people had signed up and pledged money. But the response has not matched the support shown in the storied early days of Libération.

In late 1973, the paper's staff also appealed to the public for financial support, saying they had no money to keep it going. At the time, the daily did not accept ads. Thousands of readers responded with checks and cash.

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