L'enfant terrible of the Paris press. Delightfully disrespectful, Le Canard nips at the heels of French establishment

Recently announced plans to begin work on the 23-mile ``Chunnel'' connecting England to France promise the realization of a dream that has tantalized politicians and challenged engineers for more than two centuries. At a dramatic ceremony in Lille, France, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Franois Mitterrand described the project as one of great significance for Europe, and an undertaking of economic and cultural importance for their countries. Most of the world's press greeted the historic event with the seriousness it apparently warranted, but for Le Canard encha^in'e of Paris, the meeting proved yet another opportunity to poke fun at politics and politicians (see right).

To the uninitiated, Le Canard resembles a flippant campus humor magazine; in fact, it is Europe's (and probably the world's) most trenchant satirical newspaper. Eschewing invective and abuse for informed mordancy and wit, the 70-year-old Le Canard comments on all newsworthy issues -- and in France, that primarily means politics.

Another recent international incident, the bombing of a Greenpeace ship and the involvement of French intelligence officers in the sabotage, offered the French press one of its rare occasions for muckraking. But although a Cabinet leader was felled and other officials censured, the military was not castigated, and no newspapers violated the traditional French loyalty to its armed forces.

Only one publication had a field day, gleefully taking off -- with cartoons and satiric barbs -- after everyone involved. Le Canard spared no one, military or civilian. This, after all, is the paper which suggested that the artist Christo, who recently encased the famous Pont Neuf bridge in polyamide, should consider wrapping France's presidential palace -- with President Mitterrand inside. The journal noted that this might solve Mr. Mitterrand's problem of how to remain in office.

Le Canard is the one paper ``which is there to be disrespectful,'' observes Paris-based writer Jane Kramer of The New Yorker magazine.

``We are concerned with political, not social, conduct,'' Roger Fressoz, Le Canard's president and director general, said during a recent visit. ``In the '50s there were some human interest and gossipy features, but now the paper concentrates on hard news and facts.''

Traditionally and functionally, the journal must assume an adversarial posture. It sees its role as badgering the establishment. An inevitable consequence of its contentious position has been government harassment, including threats of closure or jail for the editors -- indications that satire is hitting the mark.

Mr. Fressoz's office is worthy of any executive. On one wall is a floor-to-ceiling cabinet housing memorabilia celebrating some 60 years of successful satirical work.

Next to the editor's desk is a gaping hole, nearly two feet in diameter, revealing crumbling plaster, stones, and remnants of exposed wires. This is not a construction blunder. With a gentle smile, Fressoz points to an adjoining marble plaque, the translation of which reads: ``Here, on the night of Dec. 3, 1973, some `plumbers' were caught in the act of installing microphones, by order of Marcellin, Minister of the Interior, 1968-74.'' It and the other awards in Fressoz's office point to the effectiveness of Le Canard's satirical and investigative reporting.

Perhaps more than anything else, the wry response to the government's transgression epitomizes Le Canard's style and its special brand of humor, which its editor defines as ``Parisian.''

One of the newspaper's most celebrated expos'es revealed that former President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing had accepted a gift of diamonds from Jean Bedel Bokassa, the former self-proclaimed emperor of the Central African Republic. Mr. Giscard d'Estaing then had the embarrassing task of explaining he had sold the diamonds and given the proceeds to charity.

Asked how he perceived the role of Le Canard, Fressoz, who writes a weekly Page 1 column under the pseudonym Andr'e Ribaud, replies, ``Comme le fou du roi et un garde fou.'' That is, ``As the king's fool and a restrainer of the excesses of madness.'' (A garde fou is a railing placed along bridges and other high places to keep people from falling or jumping off.)

``To perform both these functions is to keep madness in check,'' he says. The weekly is replete with cartoons, photos, and stories full of triple entendres, complicated wordplay, and historical references akin to an intellectual parlor game.

Those armed only with crash-course French and a dictionary will be at a loss. But skilled translators were able to introduce this writer to some of the nuances.

The journal's title itself is one example. ``Canard'' is the French word for duck. A canard is also a fabrication (based on the idiom ``to sell half ducks''). Canard is also slang for a newspaper known to be careless with facts. Hence, Le Canard ench^ain'e, which first appeared during a time of intense press censorship, implies that by chaining the duck the truth can be published. There are further layers of interpretation.

Like most investigative journals, Le Canard looks to fuites (leaks) that originate from friendly, well-placed sources. ``We are also a journal of inquiry, saying what other papers won't say,'' Fressoz says. ``We seek to be truly political, which means we must be topical -- a problem for a weekly. So we try to anticipate, even to predict the upcoming news stories.''

Le Canard's first quack was heard in 1915 during World War I. It ceased publication on June 5, 1940, shortly after Hitler's troops entered Paris; the next issue had to await the liberation.

The issue of Sept. 6, 1944, sold over 500,000 copies. Circulation was held in check only by the scarcity of newsprint. Today, circulation has leveled off at 200,000 copies.

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