WITH Western Europe's ``single market'' of 1992 just around the corner, how near - and likely - is development of a European press? Judging by the early success of ``The European,'' the full-color weekly newspaper launched in May by British media master Robert Maxwell, the future should be bright. The unabashedly pro-Europe newspaper says sales hit 360,000 in June before falling off slightly for the summer months. ``That's considerably higher than the 225,000 we guaranteed advertisers when we started out,'' says a spokesman for the newspaper in London.
Perhaps most promising for Mr. Maxwell, more than 150,000 of The European's June sales were on the continent, about double what had been projected.
Still, media observers here remain skeptical about the prospects for The European or any other Pan-European newspapers.
``We are growing together in the European Community, and there is a cross-fertilization among journalists and publications,'' says Thomas Kielinger, editor of Rheinischer Merkur, a respected weekly in Bonn. ``But that doesn't yet make for a European press,'' he says. ``It's still largely each market for itself.''
The greatest impediment to developing a European press remains the multitude of languages, says Pierre Albert, director of the French Press Institute. ``English is gradually becoming a second language for us,'' he says, ``but the language problem still means that television, with its immediate interpreting capabilities, will remain the best way of reaching a European audience beyond a rather limited elite.''
A certain ``Europeanization'' of the press is taking place on the financial level, says Mr. Albert, with British and German groups, and some others, buying out independent publications. This has been especially true over recent months in Eastern Europe.
``There is an erroneous assumption that the guy in the street is all keyed up and turned on to European stories,'' says Mr. Kielinger, ``when in fact the rage is the opposite: regionalism and your own backyard.''
Having once worked for a German newspaper that tried launching with other European dailies a monthly European supplement, Kielinger says he remains unconvinced of the ultimate success of a newspaper like The European.
Such skepticism isn't stopping others from testing the market: Earlier this month Britain's daily Guardian launched the Guardian Europe, a 24-page weekly supplement that offers articles from the newspaper's European correspondents as well as from 14 other European dailies.
Here in France, the largest-circulation newspaper in France is not the prestigious Le Monde, or any other Paris newspaper, but Ouest France, a regional paper that covers the western third of the country with numerous editions, lots of local news, and even a color photo or two.
That fact underscores a great divide that separates the high-quality but financially weak Parisian or ``national'' press from the generally financially sound, though journalistically lightweight, regional press.
The French, once avid newspaper readers, now find themselves near the bottom rung of newspaper readers among industrial nations. With less than 180 newspapers published for every 1,000 citizens - half or less than the figures for West Germany and Britain - the French fall behind more than 20 other countries in newspaper readership.
Media observers here worry that without some turnaround the country's high-quality publications will be read only by an educated elite, while most people will get their news from television and its ``information'' - local affairs, activities calendars, hometown sports - from the regional press.
``We like to think of this as the cradle of human rights, including the freedom of expression that is at the foundation of a strong press, but the state of the press here is a catastrophe,'' says Laurent Munnich, a special projects editor at the Paris daily Lib'eration, and a teacher of media and communications at Paris's Political Sciences Institute.
Those concerns are echoed by Michel Cabart, director-general of the National Federation of the French Press. Running down a list of the four or five best-known French newspapers (all of them based in Paris), he says, ``They all have either recently been through rough times or are currently going through them. You can't say they're doing very well.''
Much of the blame for this situation lies with Paris's powerful newspaper production and distribution unions, according to Mr. Cabart.
With the exception of the weekly Canard Enchain'e (meaning ``Chained Duck,'' duck being a slang term for newspaper in French), an institution in itself, French newspapers are not known for investigative journalism. Le Monde in 1985 won uncharacteristic attention when it revealed the French government's role in the bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior. But media critics here say that was much more the exception than the rule.
To combat their decline, newspapers here have not sat idle: Lib'eration, while retaining touches of the hip style that marked its origins as an anti-establishment paper, has deepened its international and economic coverage to attract the stock exchange executive along with the Left-Bank student. The conservative Le Figaro hired the well-regarded editor of a high-quality, but left-leaning, news weekly as its editor.