Lib?ration: From Sartre to Rothschild

Editors’ Note: Now that it has become fashionable to mourn the probable demise of an “irreverent” (some would even say subversive) French daily newspaper, Libération, ­ or, at any rate, the demise of its editorial independence (symbolized by the firing of its editor Serge July by Edouard de Rothschild, a financier with ties to Nicolas Sarkozy), PIERRE RIMBERT’s recent book Libération: From Sartre to Rothschild constitutes a useful corrective to myths about Libération. Despite The Nation’s recent bizarre description of Libération as serving “the extreme left”, in fact, it has been ages since Libération was irreverent, except with respect to the workers, the poor and the dominated classes in general. And while this daily paper, Libération is indeed now in the hands of the financial establishment, this has nothing to do with either a “falling out” between Serge July and Edouard de Rothschild or a show of force on the part of the banker in June 2006. Rather, it is the culmination of a slow process that began in May 1981, with Serge July in the starring role before becoming this story’s collateral casualty. PIERRE RIMBERT’s book recounts the sad history of Libération, founded in 1973 by Jean-Paul Sartre to “bring the word to the people”, only to become the laboratory of the Left’s metamorphosis ­ i.e., its conversion to “neoliberalism” in the 1980s ­ and the provide the curtain of cultural audacity behind which the Left’s conformity to the ideals of free market capitalism is dissimulated. In addition to providing an analysis of what is in fact a textbook case, PIERRE RIMBERT’s excellent book examines the wellsprings of a conservative revolution in French intellectual life, putting the current agony of “Serge July’s daily” into proper perspective. A.C./JSC


First: Some rhetorical markers in the editorial career of Citizen Editor July:

“May ’68 placed the revolution and the class struggle once again at the center of all strategy. Without wanting to play the prophet, the revolution will hit France around ’70 or ’72.” (Serge July, 1969)

Today, the true subversion is information. That’s the only ideology that interests me any more. (Serge July, 1981)

The real rupture is claiming to be liberal in the eighteenth century sense of the term. (Serge July, 1986)

Personally, I am for neoliberalism. Personally, I am all for competition. (Serge July, 2002)

Everything has been good for me. (Serge July, 1985)

When he retired in April of 1907, Saint Louis Post-Dispatch founder Joseph Pulitzer laid down the fundamental principles that his successors must observe to ensure that his daily would set the standard in American journalism. The newspaper would “always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare” At the time, pockets of resistance to capitalism were multiplying in the Western world: workers’ councils in Russia, Industrial Workers of the World in the U.S.A., CGT in France. Their lofty goal was to destroy paid employment/wage slavery/the alienation of labor.

A Left that wanted to change the world; a press with a sense of social justice. This tandem has been unable to withstand the political, economic and intellectual winds of the last thirty years. When it comes to power, the Left just keeps the existing system ticking over. When it takes a position, the press justifies the world as it turns.

Founded in 1973 “to give the people a voice”, and finally sold off in chunks to Édouard de Rothschild, the newspaper Libération itself offers a telling glimpse of how these changes have marked France. In the beginning, a feisty editorial endeavor declares war on the mainstream press. “Libération will fight against complacent, groveling journalism” in the words of its November 1972 manifesto. Jean-Paul Sartre, Libération’s first editorial director, spelled out what achieving this lofty goal meant: “We have refused to become an industrial and commercial undertaking”. In the end, Libération has become a corporation, whose board of directors in 2005 included an investment banker, a former CFO of Vivendi, the former executive director of the Davos World Economic Forum, and a Suez senior executive who was also once Édouard Balladur’s press agent. As Édouard de Rothschild explained on French television (France 2, September 30, 2005), “I think it is rather utopian to want to separate the editorial side and the shareholder.”

Skimming the pages of this dreary daily, which has been largely shoved aside by France’s exploding free press, it is hard to imagine the ideological role that Libération played in the 1980s. It did for France’s cultural bourgeoisie what Commentary did for America’s neoconservatives, providing a dressing room where they could try on the free market attitudes that France’s socialist government began sporting sometime around 1983-1984. “Indeed, Mitterrand’s greatness, as Serge July put it shortly after, was to have ‘succeeded in aligning France’s democracy with the Anglo-Saxon model and in making its domestic economy bow to the will of global market forces.’ ”

The about-face of an anti-establishment figurehead may appear banal. In Italy, Marco Panella (former chairman of an international libertarian party) rallied behind Silvio Berlusconi. Christopher Hitchens, formerly a journalist-spokesman for the American Left, took a turn to the right that began with the war in Kosovo and led to a show of support for George W. Bush published in the Wall Street Journal. In Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a theoretician in the war against imperialism and for the autonomy of third world economies, morphed into an orator for development through free trade before becoming a neoliberal president. Against these examples of individual flip-flops, Libération offers a different example in France ­ one of collective normalization. After serving post-May ’68 as a haven for social struggle, in 1981 it became the organic expression of gentrification, the organ of “plugged-in” conservatism. Journalists and readers walked hand in hand along the path to social old age, their material interests carrying them into the realm of economic conformity, their cultural interests running toward the eccentric. Libération offered this readership an ideological safe house that was all the more cozy in that these conversions could unfold behind the sheltering curtain of artistic audacity and stale sexual “transgressions.” In 1986, Guy Hocquenghem described the typical modus operandi of the false avant-garde: “The key is to keep just enough behind the curve to coincide with the general reaction”.

Obviously, Libération was not the only force staging this huge reversal. No matter how convinced one already is of the media’s responsibility in selling the neoliberal credo to the masses, one cannot help but be floored by what press archives from Mitterrand’s first term of office reveal. Here, a parade of business leaders, writers and editorialists grace the television studios with their presence, enjoining their fellow citizens to get with the program of the new economic order; there, left-leaning publications like Le Nouvel Observateur, Globe or L’Événement du Jeudi putting a new gloss on the equations of a modernity that is half a century old: free trade = pragmatism, trade union = archaism, collective ownership = bankruptcy. And just as there was once a time for socialist pragmatism, the springtime of liberal pragmatism is upon us. It worships the boss, celebrates the cult of the corporation, sings the praises of individual success and blames the worker, huddled defensively over his hard-won rights and privileges.

But to fulfill Serge July’s wish ­ that of making vive la crise! a watchword of the people ­ these old saws had to be patched up using the futuristic colors of progress. The radiant future would be a computerized global network.

These years have also changed the press. As they extended their economic scope, the big communication groups formed out of the privatization of the audio-visual landscape have tightened their grip on how the political game is represented, to such an extent that the political parties have stopped reacting to the concentration of the means of information that threatens to leave its mercantile mark on the whole of society. Between the spring of 2004 and the summer of 2005, France’s three leading dailies underwent major changes involving their shareholders, against a backdrop of relative indifference: Le Figaro was bought out by Dassault, Libération was recapitalized by Rothschild, and the media conglomerate Lagardère injected money into Le Monde.

Icon and Taboo: the Significance of Accepting Ads

Break the taboos: a cohort of former leftists was all the more willing to adopt this watchword in that it served nicely to cover up their abandonment of past conquests with the makeup of subversion. As Guy Hocquenghem noted on the set of the television program “Apostrophes” in 1986, “Today’s taboos are the subversive ideas of May ’68. And breaking down taboos basically means making it easy for people to hold even more reactionary positions, i.e. those dating from before May ’68.” Before breaking the taboos of social security, free trade, imperialist war and profit, Libération cut its teeth on the advertising taboo. For a publication whose manifesto stated, in part, “There will be no advertising because by financing the press, advertisers also run it and censor it”, this was a big chunk to bite off.

After the idea was approved in the fall of 1981, advertising appeared in the pages of Libération for the first time on February 16, 1982. In the interval, Jacques Séguéla had been urging Serge July to cross the Rubicon: “Advertisers are falling all over themselves. You’ll be the Decaux * of the daily press. Galvanized by this prospect, the editor of Libération wrote a series of prophylactic articles intended to brush aside the misgivings of a “simplistic” readership. No, Libération was not giving in to the temptation to normalize ­ indeed, it was “advertising that is becoming definitively ‘normalized’ by appearing in the pages of Libération”. No, Libération was not changing, it was “advertising [that] has changed.” Advertising is an art. “To such an extent,” added July, “that we no longer really know where culture begins and where advertising leaves off.” Without it, Libération was “incomplete”, because “new social values have made their mark, crossing those for which advertising is a predisposed means. For example, the return of the ‘esprit d’entreprise’ at the end of the 1970s. And on the day Libération published its first page of advertising, July exhorted the captains of industry: “Be inventive. We would love […] it if advertisers joined us in making the leap of creation, audacity and provocation” (February 16, 1982). Back in October 1975, and not for the first time, July poked fun at Le Nouvel Observateur by tallying up the number of pages that this weekly sold to advertisers.

With the arrival of advertising, readership acquired a bona fide financial value. It was no longer just a question of selling a newspaper to readers, but of selling readers back to advertisers. As a March 30, 1982, supplement directed at the latter made clear, “advertising in Libération is primarily directed at those who make and break trends […] 70,000 readers of talent who shape public opinion”. But the advertisers were wary nonetheless: were these “readers of talent” affluent enough to justify paying for a single-page ad priced, incidentally, well above the going rate? Libération commissioned the market research firm Sofres to draw a thumbnail sketch of its target audience. This audience turned out to be made up of “young, active, competent, educated, civic-minded people, well-off in affluent households and, when they make investments or purchases or use things, they tend to focus on leisure pursuits.” Six out of ten Libération readers in 1982 were university graduates, five times the national average; one-fourth were members of the “business people and top managers” socio-economic category ­ rising to 40 per cent in 1987 ­ compared with less than one in ten of their fellow French citizens. What came next delighted the advertisers. According to the Sofres survey, 54 per cent of Libération’s readers owned a “camera with an interchangeable lens”. Better still: 30 per cent owned a “lighter that retails for 500 francs or more”, while 30 per cent owned a “pen that costs 250 francs or more”, more than 56 per cent possessed a “stereo set valued at 3,000 francs or more”. And 1.3 per cent owned “a sail or motor boat measuring more than 20 feet”.”A market to conquer”, urged the booklet that was swiftly dispatched to the ad agencies. In 1988, a brochure put out by the advertising department informed its clients that the last game of “catch-up” was over: “Libération has acquired institutional status by creating stock-price pages every day.” Giving the people a voice? It had changed. From now on, “Libération is framed for upwardly mobile professionals.”

After cultural leftism, the era of commercial leftism had arrived. Libération, “this Pravda for the new bourgeois” (Guy Hocquenghem), had converted the techniques formerly employed for subversive ends to the cause of buying and selling. In 1979, a collector’s issue, whose cover page sported fine gilt edges, mocked investors worried about the spike in gold prices (September 19, 1979). In 1987, the newspaper was printed on blue paper ­ this time inspired by Jacques Séguéla to serve the advertising needs of a certain vacation club (February 9, 1987). Reeking of incense, the May 30, 1980, issue was intended as an ironic statement on the papal visit to France. Two weeks later, this same olfactory technique was used for a luxury perfume. Whether it was printed on cotton (cut by inmates of the Fleury-Mérogis prison) for the textile industry (October 8, 1986), wrapped in an opaque advertising blister, or subsidized by a mass retail chain, the cover of Libération was morphing into an advertising vehicle. With the servitude that this status implies. One year, to honor Fête de la Publicité (National Advertising Day), Libération published a supplement “advertising the advertisers” (October 18, 1996). Each agency was given one page. One of them went for the jugular, with an ad that read: “Advertising in the pages of Libé? Over my dead body!” ­ Serge July, 1973. To which was added, inside the red lozenge familiar to Libé’s readers: “Condolences.”

Advertising in the newspaper was soon enhanced by advertising for the newspaper. “They call us leftists”, cried the man at the helm in June 1979. “I believe it is therefore critical that we advertise for Libération to break this image”. Persuaded early on that the competition between France’s dailies would become brand warfare, Libération’s management launched the paper’s first advertising campaign in late December 1982. In the Paris métro, specially designed billboards reflected the faces of passing commuters, making it seem that they were on the front page of Libération. In his inimitable Volapük, Serge July noted: “The mirror reflects a multidimensional reality, which is constantly shifting, incongruous, surprising ­ in a word, news”. Prop up the brand image, but also recruit more “readers of talent.” Television ads were created for this purpose. One of them, which ran in 1987 on a show hosted by Michèle Cotta, presented the ideal female reader: “I started reading it three years ago”, says the simpering “Félicity, Labrador breeder”, “and I liked the tone. I like the way it can make me laugh or send me into a rage, capture my interest.”

With the possible exception of “Félicity”, nobody holds Libération to a higher standard than its immobile editor ­ whose main concern when Rothschild became the paper’s owner in 2005 was to make sure he could keep his job until 2012. “I embody the values of Libération”, he assured us in the mid-1980s. Like Bernard Tapie incarnated Wonder batteries (fragment). These two emblematic French patrons turned stardom into a commercial strategy. And their admiration is mutual: the man whose career consisted basically of buying companies and then chopping them up into little pieces invited July as a guest on his television program Ambitions, to sing the praises of free trade and Libération (TF1, April 11, 1986). When Serge July burst into the circles of power, it aroused interest in Libération on the part of those who inhabit these circles. Shortly after the socialist victory in 1981, the former militant for the proletarian left was admitted to Siècle, the very select club whose monthly dinners bring together the political, economic, intellectual and media elite of France. Indeed, the talks that resulted in Édouard de Rothschild becoming Libération’s biggest shareholder are said to have begun behind these very closed doors in 2004.

In 1986, July was sitting in the center of a small circle of virtuosos in the world of Parisian journalism. The newcomer adopts the local customs: he wrote an essay on the President of the Republic (“Les Années Mitterrand,” 1986), earned homage for it from Alain Duhamel (“the most fashionable and original journalist on the Paris scene”). In between, the marketing weekly Stratégies named Serge July its “Man of the 80s” (December 1989), offering this summation of his career: “With this award, the symbol of lefty over-simplification practically becomes the symbol of the modern winner” (December 19,1988). Both guinea pig and trailblazer in the process of turning the patrons of print into media stars, Serge “modern winner”. In the end, the only aftereffect of the strident fame of its editor is the nearly total personalization of Libération. Back in 1981, the last issue of the first series insisted on this point: “What was Libération? A team.” That was then. Two decades after the introduction of advertising, Stratégies sums up the current situation: “Libé, which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, has finally achieved brand status” (September 25, 2003). Sartre would have been so proud…

* Street furniture and outdoor advertising billionaire Jean-Claude Decaux achieved fame in the 1980s as the mastermind behind the replacement of the public urinals in Paris by automated pay toilets.

PIERRE RIMBERT’s Libération, de Sartre à Rothschild was published in November 2005 by Raisons d’agir (140 pages, 6 euros).

Translation for CounterPunch by Margaret Ganong.