Liberation newspaper, one of France’s “big four” newspapers, is exemplary of the pluralist media model. Jean-Paul Sarte and Serge July co-founded the leftist paper in the wake of the protest movements in May of 1968 ("Liberation" 2010). The papers history is indicative of the French social and media climates of the early 70s onward. In this case study I will use Liberation newspaper as an example of the effects of the depolarization of the media on French newspapers. The history of Liberation is a unique interaction between a daily national and a highlight from French history, its background is symptomatic of the growing roles delegated to the media in the deconstruction of the social imagination in the information age.
The Foundation: May 1968 Riots
Students, using trash can lids as shields, marching near the Gare de Lyon in Paris in May 1968. Such images remain a powerful symbol in today’s France. Source
In March of 1968, Daniel Cohn-Bendit a student from Nanterre University led demonstrations against out dated rules banning young men and women from being together in dormitory rooms. These demonstrations got out of hand and the school was shut down in early May of 68’. Protesting “spread to central Paris, to the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne, where the student elite demonstrated against antiquated university rules, and then outward, to workers in the big factories” (Erlanger, 2009).
When the student rallies merged with the strikes by millions of factory workers the movement came close to forcing the president at the time, Charles de Gaulle, from power ("History of France"). It has been said that the movement was "the beginning of the end of the Communist Party in France," which opposed the revolt of the young leftists who it could not control, and who managed to break the party's authority over the big industrial unions (Erlanger, 2009).
As noted above, Jean Paul Sartre and Serge July following incidents taking place in May of 1968 co-founded Liberation newspaper. The paper enjoyed direct benefits from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) news agency started in June 1971 by the Maoists. To reinforce this capital, leaders of the proletarian Left (a Maoist millitant or “nantierriens” organization), those responsible for the creation of Liberation, persuaded Jean-Paul Sartre, a noted journalist and philosopher, to become its managing editor ("Serge July"). The Maoists and Sartre also appointed the services of Serge July, a noted journalist and Maoist, in December of 1972 to head the politically oriented side of the paper, securing a bond between the intellectual and the political.
In 1974 when Sartre stepped down as director of publication after one year, July succeeded him and remained in that position until June 2006 when he was pressured to step down (“Liberation”). Due to competition and the natural weaknesses of a young newspaper, July took advantage of the successivee crises that affected the paper in the early years to renew and professionalize the papers staff. Numerous important figures from the May 1968 events were appointed to the paper. These members, like Marc Kravetz and Jean Louis Peninou, served to unify those involved in the movement while simultaneously representing the diversity of perspectives (Guisnel, J 1999). With guest journalist like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Liberation was finally legitimized above other activist dailies but still paid abundant attention to everything in the news regarding May 68.
At its onset Liberation was the “voice for the extreme left in France” (“Liberation”). During the first year the paper sold eight or nine thousand copies a day and little over twelve thousand the following year. The paper covers local news, business, jobs and community events but it is heavily focused on the political. Although it failed to become one of the two most popular French papers, a “Red France-Soir,” as Serge July notes, it still manages to impose its mark on the world of media protest (Guisnel, J. 1999). The extremely reactive paper outputs of twelve pages per day which makes it a propagator of information and comments unparalled in dispute by any other activist paper printing news weekly or monthly.
Over the years, Liberation has undergone a number of shifts to increase readership and appeal, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s ("Liberation"). As a result, it has become more and more moderate and is currently regarded as center-left in its editorial position ("Liberation"). Although the paper has gone through many transitions, previous editors took pride in the freedom of press they felt it had. As of 2007 the paper had a circulation of approximately 140,000 a year. These numbers have been decreasing throughout the years. Two semi-recent events took major tolls on the publications readership while the steady depolarization of the papers subject matter simultaneously alienated left-wingers. The first was the introduction of Edouard de Rothschild as one of the company’s largest shareholders in January of 2005 ("Liberation"). Rothschild, “for 20 million euros acquired 37% of Liberation” and is now the companies largest shareholder(Sartre.org). The second event was Serge July’s campaign for the “yes” vote on the referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, which was to decide whether France should ratify the proposed Constitution of the European Union. In doing so, July “alienated a majority of left-wing readers” ("Liberation").
In response to these events the paper has suffered momentously. Immediately following July’s campaign Rothschild “asked” July to resign from the paper, which curved readership levels even further. This prompted an angry walkout by four of the papers top journalists and was followed by other staff resignations. Francois Wenz-Dumas, a union leader at the paper stated that “journalists stepped down because they feared for their freedom of the press, their journalistic freedom,” he also claimed that Rothschild only took out such a big stake in the company for his own monetary gains ("Iconic French paper"). Currently, management hopes to save up to 10 million euros through staff reductions-- with layoffs, early retirement schemes and other measures -- and three million through other cost-cutting measures (-- with layoffs, early retirement schemes and other measures -- and three million through other cost-cutting measures ("Iconic French paper").
The commercial failure is the result of the reader's ''incapacity'' to understand the challenges presented by these reforms: 'the traditional readers of Libération have been disorientated' by the papers need to reach out to a broader audience because of the depolarization of the media despite its strong proletariat Left origins (Hube, N., 2001). The institutional treatment of the news has increased while the share devoted to “militant Maoist” subjects continues to decline. Since the end of 1980 items that were once the hallmark of the newspaper covered less than half of its surface editing (front page material).
At the same time, July and most of his lieutenants took note of the long predicted death of leftism. Unfortunately, the paper suffered as its journalists tried to transform the paper to be more professional and expand its readership while ensuring its sustainability without deny the politically polarized and cultural affiliations of its origin (Benson, R., 2002). These transformations were necessary to keep up with the changing media climate in France. As newspapers that were largely political in content began competing with Internet sources and free entertainment dailies they were forced to make changes.
Liberation's troubles are symptomatic of France’s anemic national newspaper market and modern shift in information culture. As a whole France has seen its newspaper market turnover fall 15% in 15 years which has been dealt a severe blow by the rise of the Internet and free newspapers. The last official figures show that Liberation sold just fewer than 137,000 copies per day in France in 2005, which is down from 163,000 in 2001, and 182,000 in 1990 ("Iconic French paper").