French press gets story right. Long criticized for its deference to political power, the press has shown backbone and perseverance in covering the Greenpeace story

The official confession that French agents were ordered to blow up a Greenpeace protest ship was a diplomatic and political bombshell for France. But it really did little more than confirm what the press had been reporting all along. The French press, long criticized for its deference to political power and strong ideological bias, has shown surprising backbone and perseverance in reporting the affair, observers here say.

Just as the comparison has been made between Franois Mitterrand and Richard Nixon when he was in the throes of Watergate, many have begun comparing the respected Paris daily Le Monde, which first broke the story, to the Washington Post.

``It's a big victory'' for the press, says Olivier Todd, former editor of the weekly magazine L'Express. ``It has been a long time since we've seen something like this.''

Newspapers and magazines have been reporting the French trail leading to and from Greenpeace's sunken Rainbow Warrior for weeks. Some of it has been speculation and some even educated guessing, but much of it has been based on the investigations of French reporters in New Zealand, Britain, and within the ministries in Paris.

The most recent series of revelations came last week when Le Monde reported that a yet unknown team of French agents had planted the bombs on the hull of the Rainbow Warrior, and that Defense Minister Charles Hernu had either ordered the mission or been aware of it. The satirical weekly Le Canard Encha^in'e and L'Express came out with similar revelations later in the week.

In a letter to Prime Minister Laurent Fabius last Thursday, President Mitterrand said that ``in spite of the investigations that you ordered . . . the press has revealed new elements.'' Mr. Hernu resigned the next day, saying he had been lied to.

``For the first time, it really looks as though the standards of journalism have been applied in a way that they have never been applied,'' said Edward Behr, a Newsweek correspondent long based in Paris.

Journalists cite three causes for the timorous tradition of France's press: money, politics, and a penchant for literary style and Cartesian logic.

French newspapers have relied on state aid in the form of newsprint subsidies and tax rebates. Some say editors fear financial pressure from the government if their reporting became too critical.

Many publications have had difficult financial years recently as well -- Le Monde in particular has been near folding -- and their resources for investigations are said to be limited.

The political bias of a newspaper also spills over into the news pages in France more than in the American press, and ties between editors and politicians tend to be close. Ironically, Le Monde has often been criticized for being too supportive of Mitterrand's socialist government.

And there are cross-overs between the worlds of journalism and politics. Robert Hersant, owner of a number of conservative newspapers including the influential Le Figaro, is considered a likely candidate for a seat in the National Assembly next spring. On the socialist side, Max Gallo, the Mitterrand government's former spokesman, is now editor of the daily Le Matin.

Readers expect a bias. ``Traditionally, the French have bought newspapers because these newspapers have reflected their prejudices and feelings,'' says Mr. Behr.

Finally, French reporters place great importance on writing with style and developing a logical argument. Sentences are often long and Proustian. Important revelations are often left for late in the story, after they have been given proper support.

``It is something of a literary tradition of the French press that goes back to the 19th century,'' says Daniel Vernet, Le Monde's editor in chief.

There have been notable exceptions to this general shyness among reporters. Le Canard Encha^in'e has a proud history of investigative reporting. The daily Lib'eration, under editor Serge July, has conducted a number of investigations too. Why French newspapers are coming around to a tougher investigative streak -- and indeed whether it will last -- remains difficult to assess.

Newsweek's Behr gives much of the credit to Lib'eration for setting an example for the others.

Mr. Vernet insists that Le Monde's stories do not represent a ``revolution'' so much as ``an example of how the French press has evolved in the past few years.'' He suggests that ideologies have been losing value in France and that newspapers have been working with greater independence.

In any case, Mr. Todd, formerly of L'Express, warns that reporters should not get carried away with their success, noting what he calls ``a slightly righteous tone'' in an editorial by Vernet about Le Monde's role in the Greenpeace affair.

``After all,'' says Todd, ``they're only doing their job.''

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