The salient fact about the French press is that its financial health is precarious although there are a few money-makers and it would not be able to survive without subsidy from the state it so often opposes.
An outstanding phenomenon in the French newspaper world has been the shift in importance and vigor from the Parisian press to the regional press. Another has been the decay of the opinion press (papers more concerned with advancing their own point of view than with reporting news), which once was the hallmark of French journalism.
Today, at least 90% of the major French dailies can be called information papers (papers whose chief concern is reporting news). This change began in the 1930s, and by the beginning of World War II the division was about 60% opinion papers and 40% news journals. Since the war, the change has been accelerated.
France's press is subsidized in one way or another by an estimated sum of more than $55 million annually. Prices of newspapers are controlled by the government. They were fixed in 1963 at 30 centimes a copy, except for Le Monde and Paris Presse, which were permitted to sell at 40 centimes. The others were raised to that level on Aug. 1, 1967.
Subsidization takes several forms. For example, a journalist in France phones, cables, or telexes his story at half the ordinary rate, and newspapers are mailed to subscribers for only a fraction of the cost for other material of the same weight. If a reporter has to travel anywhere in France on a story, he pays half fare on French railways.
Sometimes the subsidy is direct. If a publisher desires to build a new printing plant, the government will pay up to 15% of its cost, and in the important budget item of paper cost it will pay the difference between the French price for newsprint and the world price, which is lower. The state also subsidizes overseas sales of French newspapers. It does not require publishers to pay a purchase tax, and it exempts them from the corporation tax on profits if the money is reinvested within five years. Working journalists get an automatic 30% deduction on their income taxes as an expense allowance.
Problems and Changes
In spite of all this help, the French press is in a chronic state of crisis. Well-organized, intransigent unions impede modernization, and the practices of some managements are equally obsolete. Other difficulties are the uncertainties of transportation, the fact that advertising is hard to get, and the fact that production costs are higher in France than in any other European country. Publishers cannot relieve their situation by buying television stations; the law forbids them to own any.
Efforts to solve these problems have caused mergers and the disappearance of papers in Paris, while the provincial press has become more healthy. Its health, however, is partly the result of mergers and of advertisement agreements.
The French press comprises about 15,000 titles (newspapers and magazines together), with a total circulation per issue of about 140 million. Its approximately 135 daily newspapers print about 12 million copies a day, a figure that has not fluctuated significantly since the mid-1950s.
In Paris, there are 11 French-language papers of general interest, 7 of them technically morning and 4 evening. The others are specialized journals — 2 are devoted to horseracing, 2 are economic and financial publications, and 1 is a sporting paper. The combined print order of these papers approaches 5 million, but the actual sales are nearer 4 million.
Between 1946 and 1961, about 100 dailies disappeared in France, but gains have exceeded these losses because of the growth of weeklies and of the provincial press in general, which accounts for more than half of the daily circulation. Before World War II almost two thirds of the circulation was concentrated in Paris.
France-Soir is the circulation leader, with 1.3 million. It prints six daily editions around the clock, and its circulation is the highest in France — 800,000 in the Paris region, 500,000 elsewhere. Le Monde is a serious quality paper, the most influential in France, read everywhere in Europe and considered one of the three or four "best" newspapers in the world. Its circulation is about 300,000.
The Paris press publishes more than 60 nondaily newspapers of general interest and over 8,800 periodicals, printing about 115 million copies. Foreign-language newspapers and periodicals appear in 19 languages, nearly all of them published in Paris, including the International Herald Tribune (now owned jointly by the former owners of the New York Herald Tribune and by the New York Times and the Washington Post).
Of the other Parisian papers, the most noteworthy is Le Figaro, traditional organ of the conservative and liberal middle classes, with a circulation of 525,000 and a distinguished past. In the provinces, the most influential papers are La voix du Nord, in Lille; Le Progrès, of Lyon; and Ouest-France, of Rennes. These are regional papers; the Rennes paper has nearly 50 different editions. Of the 95 dailies in the provinces, almost all are morning papers.
It is not easy to separate the periodical field from the newspaper business in France because there are so many interlocking ownerships and because the line between some weekly newspapers and some of the magazines is not clear-cut. The leading magazine is Paris-Match, with a circulation of 1,360,000, a mass circulation magazine with gravure print and many pictures, tending toward scandal, sex, and sport. From a production standpoint, Réalités, a monthly luxury magazine of the arts, is one of the world's most beautiful magazines. Among the women's magazines, the fashion leader is Elle, with 740,000 circulation.
France has about 800 periodicals offering political and general features, 500 others that present general news, 2,000 technical publications, 200 for children and young people, 600 agricultural journals, 1,500 devoted to education and pedagogy, and 2,000 devoted to the legal, political, economic, and social sciences. Leading them all is the monthly Catholic magazine, L'écho des françaises, with a circulation of 1,760,000.
The French press, newspaper and periodical, is largely controlled by five groups. The largest is the Franpar-Hachette group, regarded as perhaps the most powerful publishing group in the world, and probably the largest as well.
Author: John Tebbel, New York University
Source: Encyclopedia Americana, © 2003 Grolier Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Note: Circulation figures are for 2003, and were obtained from various sources, including the Association Pour le Contrôle de la Diffusion des Médias.