Le Monde knocked off its perch
France's highly respected daily, Le Monde, is in fact a sham of a paper which lies to its readership, practises political censorship and fiddles its accounts — according to a bomb of a book just released. Marc Burleigh reports.
Its effect has been like that of a stun grenade thrown into a posh cocktail party of the media and political elite of Paris.
In La Face Cachée du Monde (The Dark Side of Le Monde), authors Philippe Cohen — a former Le Monde reporter fired in 1987 — and Pierre Péan — one of France's best-known investigative journalists - launch a savage attack on a publication which they say has become a "modern-day Pravda" run in a "climate of fear" by an unscrupulous triumvirate.
They charge Editorial Manager Jean-Marie Colombani, Chief Editor Edwy Plenel and Board Chairman Alain Minc with distorting information in an attempt to shape French politics and society, covering up scandals, and hiding the newspaper's at times precarious financial plight.
The 630-page tome, which was printed under tight security in Spain to prevent leaks, has been billed by its sponsors — including the news magazine L'Express which has printed extracts — as an essential act of iconoclasm against an over-important and unaccountable national institution.
Le Monde was founded in 1944 on the orders of General Charles de Gaulle and today has a print-run of about 400,000. Its austere layout and high-minded tone have won it admirers around the world and a reputation for authoritative reportage.
However, according to Denis Jeambar, editor of L'Express, "behind the facade of journalistic idealism is a lust for power that uses all the tools that the press traditionally hunts down: one-sided denunciations, psychological pressure, abuse of power and autocracy."
In its edition published 26 February, the same day that the book hit the shelves, Le Monde struck back, accusing the authors of being inspired by a hateful personal vendetta and described the book as an amalgam of "errors, lies, libels and calumnies."
On its media page the newspaper reports that while in the interests of freedom of expression it will not seek to have the book withdrawn from sale, it will launch libel actions against Cohen and Péan, as well as their publishers and L'Express magazine.
The Hidden Face of Le Monde accuses the paper of twisting the news in favour of chosen politicians, such as for the 1995 presidential candidate Edouard Balladur or for the defeated Socialist challenger in the 2002 race, Lionel Jospin, whom Le Monde supported "like the rope supports the hanged man."
It says the newspaper flirted with former Vivendi Universal president Jean-Marie Messier, then turned against him when a financial deal with him fell through, and alleges similar hypocrisy over a proposed free-sheet for Paris which Le Monde first considered backing and then vehemently condemned.
Le Monde's coverage of big news events over the past few decades — the 1985 bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, or former president François Mitterrand's order to tap the telephones of judges, journalists and politicians, for instance — showed it "no longer had the moral, political and cultural links" of its original mission, the authors argue.
The book says that Le Monde, represented as a champion of France's fourth estate gone bad, has in recent years become a "totalitarian institution" lorded over by a small "clan" which furthered its own interests and which did not hesitate to try to shape French politics and business.
It also quotes an anonymous analyst who says Colombani "embellished" the newspaper's books and that the group had racked up a loss of more than EUR 25 million (USD 28 million) in two years.
"The treason at Le Monde took four directions: one-sided denunciation, cynicism, abuse of power, autocracy," the book says.
"The journalist has lost his professional ideal, and the reader has lost his daily," it concludes.
La Face cachée du Monde by Pierre Péan et Philippe Cohen.
Published by Mille et Une Nuits, price EUR 24.