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.

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.

While its founder, Auguste Nefftzer, had been a child of Protestant liberalism, the founder of Le Monde, Hubert Beuve-Mery had been in the deeply influenced by Emmanuel Mounier's "personalist" movement of the 1930s, whose ideas were expressed in l'Esprit, a progressive Catholic monthly.

Mr. Mounier and his followers were close to the Dominican order and favored a Christianity deeply committed to the modern world. Later, after the military collapse of France, Mr. Beuve-Mery and a small group of "men of thought" retired to the School of Cadres at Uriage, France, (near Grenoble) where they tried to analyze the causes of France's fall and lay the foundations of their country's renaissance.

In their view, the failure of France was the direct result of the failure of its bourgeois elite, which had abdicated its responsibilities to protect its shortterm Material interests. They felt their duty was to educate a new generation of French cadres and to provide it with moral and spiritual foundations. The role of the cadres has always been decisive in the highly centralized French state. From the very beginning, after Charles de Gaulle appointed Mr. Beuve-Mery to be Le Monde's founding father and publisher, the paper undertook to educate and guide France's cadres. Its aim was twofold:

* The modernization of French society and of French economy.

* The preservations of spiritual values (in contrast with both American and Russian materialism).

After 1969, when Mr. Beuve-Mery was succeeded by the paper's present publisher, Jacques Fauvet, the paper underwent major changes.

Where Mr. Beuve-Mery had acted as an enlightened but firm monarch, Jacques Fauvet behaved like a parliamentarian chairman and often vacillated. He deliberately chose growth over quality.

The small band of experts and specialists -- "mandarins" as they were called -- has grown into a huge staff while the control over its activities has loosened. The accuracy of its in-depth foreign reporting has suffered while the quantity of its coverage has increased under Jacques Amalric, who 18 months ago replaced Michel Tatu, the conservative-minded but extremely demanding foreign editor.

Le Monde has been periodically denounced as "leftist" by the upper middle class and high officials, as an instrument of reaction by the Communists.

A recent study by Jacques Thibaut, analyzing Le Monde positions since 1944, shows that the paper has, in fact, expressed the deeper interests of the French bourgeoisie. Basically, Le Monde has supported the rationalization of industry, the modernization of society, science, and urbanization. At the same time it has fiercely defended the primacy of spiritual values and severely judged the elite both in government and in business.

If Le Monde's assessment so often has turned out to be correct, it may be because of its central belief that material interests are best served when based on strict morality.

Thus, Le Monde can be characterized as a paper that has its spiritual roots both in 18th-century enlightenment and in progressive catholicism, functioning as an austere, in some ways puritanical, frequently moralizing organ. It has often annoyed, indeed, enraged its government by denouncing corruption and complacence in high places and shortsighted or cynical policies, both domestic and international. It has fought nationalizations and a growing intrusion of government in the private lives of the citizens.

It has made its share of mistakes: Its reporting on the Cultural Revolution, on the Portuguese revolution, and on the war in Vietnam was often blased. For many years it was criticized for treading too softly on the Soviet Union just as more recently it has been assailed for its position toward the United States. The truth of the matter is, however, that while Le Monde defends opinions and ideas, it never defends interests or parties.

Because Le Monde successfully contributed to modernizing France after the war , its role in the future as an instrument of change will in all likelihood diminish -- but not necessarily its success as a newspaper.

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