As France turns, so turns Le Monde

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.

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 The old patchwork quilt of six or seven articles has been replaced by a layout that gives prominent display to only three, with a box at the bottom of the page signposting the major news stories inside.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.

``Fontaine's certainly respected, and already he's given the paper a different perfume, more exact, quicker on the news,'' says Jean-Franois Held, managing editor of the weekly L''Ev'enement. ``But can Le Monde really change and be revived?''

The doubt stems from the unique and unwieldy nature of the paper. Created in 1944 by Hubert Beuve-Meury, Le Monde practiced the socialism it preached: Its shares were owned mostly by the employees.

In the days of prosperity, the system worked well. Mr. Beuve-Meury provided firm leadership, and during the 1960s and '70s, circulation rose to a peak of 450,000, much higher than Paris's low-brow tabloids. It was if the New York Times sold more copies than the New York Daily News and the New York Post together.

``When I started here, there was a tremendous drive to make the paper the best,'' Fontaine recalls. ``Then we became too satisfied.''

Employee democracy turned into endless fighting and immobility. For two crucial years, from 1980 to 1982, the journalists battled over the choice of a new leader before electing an undistinguished subeditor, Andr'e Laurens.

Meanwhile, Le Monde grew increasingly out of touch with the times. Its aura of engaged but fair journalism evaporated with its militant support of the left during the late 1970s and the presidential candidacy of Franois Mitterrand in 1981. Even as President Mitterrand's popularity plunged, the paper continued to treat him gently. A brash, harder-hitting, and more youth-oriented newspaper, Lib'eration, began luring away Le Monde readers.

``Before, when you became 18, it was automatic that you began to subscribe,'' Fontaine says. ``No longer. We have a definite problem with the youth.'

Bad business decisions accentuated the editorial problems. During the prosperous 1970s, Le Monde purchased a new hot-type printing press that was obsolete as soon as it was installed. It now runs at one-third capacity. As profits grew, salaries jumped along with the number of new employees. Today, a journalist at Le Monde earns 50 to 60 percent above the industry average, and for 180 reporters, there are 1,250 support staff.

The resulting decline has been dramatic. During the past five years, circulation dropped to 350,000. The debt now stands at about $8 million. When the staff rejected Andr'e Laurens's austerity proposals in December, he resigned.

At this point, some observers said the paper's only hope of avoiding bankruptcy was to hire a professional publisher who would abandon its disdain for making a profit. One financial magazine even ran a cover story proposing a list of potential bosses.

But France is a country where outsiders are not easily accepted into the family, and Le Monde, with its quarrels and all, remains more a family than a business. Fontaine was the only in-house candidate acceptable to the staff who enjoyed a significant reputation outside the paper. He remained faithful even when, a few years back, he was offered the position of French ambassador to China.

``Anglo-Saxons have a hard time understanding this, but like many people here, I've worked at only one paper in my entire life, 39 years in all,'' he says, explaining that his long tenure makes the staff trust him. Only with such trust, he adds, can he forge the consensus needed to change and revive the paper.

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