Duck Unchained

Duck Unchained

Equal parts muckraking journalism and biting satire, the print-only, century-old French newspaper Le Canard enchaîné represents one of the most remarkable stories in modern journalism.

Cartoon by Pétillon, with French presidents from de Gaulle to Macron spanning left to right. The original version graces the walls of the Canard’s offices. (Le Canard enchaîné)

Until the end of 2017, if you opened the website of the French weekly newspaper Le Canard enchaîné (which translates roughly as “The Chained Duck”), you were greeted with a short announcement: “No, contrary to appearances, Le Canard has not come to splash around on the Net . . . our job is to inform and amuse our readers, with newsprint and ink. It’s a wonderful calling which suffices to keep our team busy.” While it is now possible to sign up for home delivery online, the website has otherwise stayed true to the Luddite manifesto that figured on the homepage since its launch in 2004, and which concluded: “The very modest cyber-Canard invites you every Wednesday to visit your newsagent!”

Purchase a copy of the paper, and you will contemplate a broadsheet whose very materiality—its serif typeface, small font size, crowded layout, distinctive cartoons, sparing use of photography, and absence of color save a stroke of red—delivers in tangible ways on the site’s anti-modern promise. Stick your nose in the newsprint, and you will confront resolutely literate prose, calibrated to deter all but the best-read readers. Consider now its business model: a modest newsroom of roughly thirty journalists paid some of the highest salaries in French print journalism; no advertising; a 1.20 euro newsstand price (just north of $1) that hasn’t gone up in over a quarter of a century; an ownership structure that vests the paper with its writers rather than outside shareholders or some deep-pocketed conglomerate. You would be forgiven if you thought that this throwback was nothing more than a recipe for shrinking readership and bleeding cash, a dinosaur condemned to the journalistic fossil record by the relentless telos of digital technology and the market.

But you would be wrong. With newsstand sales upwards of 400,000 copies per week, 70,000 subscribers, low overhead and wholly owned offices, 2 million euros in 2016 after-tax profits, and a whopping 127 million euros in cash reserves, the debt-free Canard is a thriving, profitable newspaper. It commands a deeply loyal readership, who in busy news cycles hurry anxiously to their local newsstands on Wednesday mornings to pick up their copies before they sell out. So powerfully do its loyalists identify with their paper that some even flag their fidelity in online dating profiles. When the Canard put out a pricy 49-euro coffee-table book in October 2016 to celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary, it sold 60,000 copies by Christmas.

France’s political class, easily the Canard’s most assiduous readers, can’t wait until the paper hits newsstands each week. Early every Tuesday evening, motorcyclists set out from government ministries, speeding across Paris streets to the Canard’s offices on the tony rue Saint Honoré, where they pick up copies hot off the press so that nervous ministers can be the first to discover the latest leaks and revelations to have found their way onto the pages of France’s premier venue for investigative journalism.

The century-old Canard represents one of the most remarkable stories in modern journalism. Its unlikely history tracks a singular path across French political and cultural life, while its financial health suggests a contrarian model for newspapers fighting for their survival, one that eschews the capital-intensive, growth-oriented, technology-obsessed strategies of the day.

 

Le Canard was founded during the First World War by Maurice and Jeanne Maréchal, a left-leaning husband-and-wife journalist team, along with like-minded illustrator Henri-Paul Deyvaux-Gassier, as an anarchist-leaning, libertarian voice. Presented as satire to evade wartime censorship, the paper’s lampooning of militarism, capitalism, the Church, and state quickly found a sympathetic readership amongst French soldiers in the trenches. By the 1930s, the paper was a well-established institution; its stable of contributors counted prominent writers like Anatole France and Jean Cocteau; and its weekly circulation reached 250,000 with the advent of the Popular Front in 1936, before the Canard voluntarily suspended operations after France’s defeat in 1940.

The Liberation of France profoundly reshaped French journalism, producing a politically segmented landscape of major national titles that prospered up until the current legacy media crisis. Le Monde for example was born in 1944, first in the mind of a Charles de Gaulle convinced that France needed a serious newspaper of record, and then on the confiscated presses of the collaborationist Le Temps. In 1951, Le Monde’s journalists instituted a collegial ownership and governance structure that reserved them a 28 percent stake and guaranteed the paper’s editorial independence, thus establishing an oft-imitated model for writer-controlled publications in the hexagon.

Beginning a long history of state support for journalism in France, postwar governments also put in place regulations aimed at ensuring that all newspapers had equal access to raw materials (in response to serious paper shortages after the war) and distribution networks that persist to this day. Participating publications like the Canard still hold a controlling stake in the powerful Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne (NMPP) sales cooperative (renamed Presstalis in 2009) charged with delivering periodicals to newsagents.

Le Canard resumed publication at the Liberation and, buoyed by newsprint’s rising postwar tide, quickly reached its circulation high-water mark of half a million copies each week. With its sales numbers collapsing in the early 1950s, however, the paper confronted the only serious crisis of its existence. Jeanne Maréchal, who had inherited a majority stake from her husband during the Second World War, fended off a takeover bid in 1953 by Hachette (the French-based multinational, founded in 1826, has aggressively expanded since the 1950s to become one of the ten biggest publishers in the world). When a public hungry for a critical antiwar voice turned to the Canard during the Algerian War, the paper took advantage of some welcome financial breathing room to reinvent itself as a vehicle for investigative journalism. In 1987, twenty years after Jeanne Maréchal’s death, the Canard also reorganized itself as a buyout-proof business fully owned by its full-time journalists—the same bylaws remain in force today.

Best known today for its unrivaled capacity to break big stories, the Canard has played a decisive role in French political history over the last half-century. Positioning itself as a pole of opposition to Charles de Gaulle’s imperial presidency, the paper hammered away with caustic commentary in its “La Cour” feature. (Equal parts resigned and bemused, de Gaulle would reportedly ask each week “so what is the fowl saying?”) It was the Canard that broke the so-called “Bokassa Diamonds Affair,” revealing in 1979 that president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had accepted a gift of precious stones from the emperor of the Central African Empire, a neocolonial French ally; the story haunted Giscard throughout his losing 1981 reelection bid. In 1981, the paper revealed that budget minister Maurice Papon had helped round up Jews for transport to Germany as prefect of Bordeaux during the Occupation; this issue sold 1 million copies, still Le Canard’s record. In 1984 the Canard published evidence that far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen had tortured prisoners as a paratrooper during the Algerian War. The weekly doggedly mapped the penumbra of clientage and corruption that surrounded Jacques Chirac, first as mayor of Paris and then as president. If students of geopolitics aren’t following the fruits of the Canard’s vast network of sources deep within the French defense and intelligence communities, typically parked below the fold on page three, they should be.

Little surprise that the Canard’s inquisitive irreverence has never endeared it to those in power. Libel suits brought by resentful politicians keep the Canard’s lawyers busy (their record in court is good). The most famous episode of its storied face-off with state power unfolded shortly after the paper moved to its current location in 1973, when an employee one December evening stumbled upon French domestic intelligence agents planting bugs in their new offices. The paper has never repaired the holes drilled into the wall by the clumsy spies to conceal their microphones, preferring instead to memorialize the failed operation with a plaque. The Canard didn’t just break a French Watergate of sorts, it was the target of the break-in.

 

The beating heart of the newspaper is “La Mare aux Canards” (The Duck Pond) on page two, a feature that each week offers dozens of brief, anonymously sourced reports on closed-door dealings within the government, high civil service, opposition parties, and civil society, complete with what amount to selected transcripts of cabinet meetings. This is the reporting that proves week in week out just how much access Canard journalists have to well-placed informants.

Although it is an equal-opportunity gadfly, ready to sink its investigative and satirical teeth into targets of all political stripes, the paper nonetheless retains traces of its original identity: if not altogether libertaire (no self-respecting anarchist could endorse the level of electoral engagement preached by the Canard’s editorials), it leans consistently to the left, taking particular aim at power, privilege, inequality, and intolerance; it is resolutely anticlerical in the way only French leftists and republicans can be; and in recent years it has become a strong environmental advocate, a commitment expressed with eloquent ferocity in the weekly “Plouf!” rubric.

For the Canard, whose masthead defines the publication as a “Satirical newspaper published on Wednesdays,” it doesn’t suffice to break big stories or follow sulfurous leads wherever they might go. They must be reported with style, wit, ironic detachment, and biting humor. It’s not just a place for news—though generations of rueful French politicians know all too well it is that—but an arena for the expression of a certain form of French literary culture. It is without doubt the best written of the major French newspapers. Its editors manifestly revel in crafting playfully punning headlines. A weekly feature (“Sur l’album de la Comtesse”) specializes in a uniquely French word game known as a contrepèterie, in which phonemes in a perfectly anodyne phrase are rearranged to generate a new, unexpectedly humorous, preferably obscene, phrase (akin to a Spoonerism). The weekly is rightly famous for its political cartoons, home to work by some of the premier artists in the genre: Pétillon pens sharply humorous caricatures of political figures in the classic gros nez style of the Franco-Belgian school of comics; Cardon locates the great and the good—immediately recognizable despite being sketched always from behind—in dark, abstract theaters of the absurd; readers of the Guardian and the New York Review of Books will be familiar with the art of Venezuelan-born, French-based Pancho.

Drawing from an old French tradition with roots in the eighteenth-century press, Le Canard’s brand of satirical journalism doesn’t really have any equivalent in the English-speaking world; Britain’s now-defunct Punch perhaps came closest. Observers outside of France will likely think to Charlie Hebdo, the Canard’s younger satirical cousin tragically made famous by the terrorist attacks to which several writers, artists, and editors lost their lives in 2015. While there are certain similarities (and some overlap in staff, like the cartoonist Cabu, who died in the assault), Charlie Hebdo is a child of the 1960s, steeped in sexual liberation, considerably coarser in satirical and polemical tone, more ferocious still in its anticlerical attachments, unencumbered by the Canard’s investigative mission, and, until 2015, addressed to a smaller audience.

The Canard isn’t just a political animal. It also represents one of the premier spaces for cultural criticism in France, with erudite commentary on dance, theater, film, fiction, and non-fiction, as well as classical and popular music. Like all the writers in the Canard, whose eight densely packed pages impose tight word limits, its critics do a lot with very little. Its film reviews can be things of beauty; pans capture their subjects’ mediocrity in hilarious, koan-like texts.

Built on the premise that its audience is both fluent in the sophisticated literary and visual idioms in which it is crafted and already familiar with France’s baroque political landscape, the Canard’s content erects formidable cultural barriers to entry for new readers. Part of what unites the fellowship of Canard readers is the shared pleasure of decoding, of parsing contrepèteries and making sense of the hermetic twists and turns of the political plot. This is the joy that comes with being part of a cognoscenti, in on linguistic games and literary allusions, political gossip and politically esoteric jokes, a heady exercise in newsprint-mediated social distinction. The Canard may lean left, but it does so with a decidedly elitist posture.

 

Not everything in the Canard’s old-school commitments merits praise. Long a boys’ club, its humor is ribald in a male-centered, often misogynist, mode (the late Cabu’s cartoon portrayals of women could be cringe-inducing), and house sociability is reportedly oriented around wine-soaked male bonding. Over three decades after Charlie Hebdo veteran Sylvie Caster became the first woman to join the postwar Canard in 1983, the paper is at long last seeking to change its masculine culture, and the newsroom now counts four full-time women writers (out of roughly thirty). As if tracing a midpoint between the paper’s mannish past and its more equitable future, Érik Emptaz, the chief editor who pens the Canard’s front-page editorial each week, recently used his platform both to praise the courage of women coming forward to denounce sexual harassment and to denounce the #BalanceTonPorc hashtag (the French pendant to the #MeToo movement) as a troubling form of summary justice. (No instance of sexual harassment at the paper has come to light.)

The newspaper’s manifestly close proximity with the political class it purports to police also gives reason for pause. When the paper gaily reports that, say, Emmanuel Macron has scolded his ministers for leaking information to the Canard the week before, it does so as proud proof that no secret is secure from the “palmiped” (as the newspaper likes to refer to itself). But such cycles of revelations also offer self-reflexive evidence of just how tightly integrated the Canard is into the French political system. In their vehemently critical 2008 book Le vrai Canard, journalists Karl Laske and Laurent Valdiguié reproach the paper for purportedly cultivating friendly relations with figures like Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, alleging that these symbiotic relationships give the lie to the Canard’s claims to objectivity and distance. After all, the high-ranking leakers who feed choice morsels to the Canard have their own unspoken reasons for wanting to see them broadcast in next week’s “Mare aux Canards.” Even the paper’s most fervent admirers need to wonder at what price unrivaled access like this comes.

More broadly, the steady diet of political confidences the Canard feeds to its loyal readers doesn’t just throw open a window onto secret machinations, hidden animosities, and calculated reversals of position. It champions a worldview in which politics are seen to be a shadowy battleground, a theater of deception in which things are never as they seem (there would be no need to read the Canard if they were). Its ironic treatment of actions and motives suggests further that this is a world in which ideological fault lines and principled rationales are intrinsically suspect (what other conclusion could one draw from the palmiped’s rich and ever-growing catalogue of politicians’ lies and hypocrisies?). First-time readers can find its rough treatment of political figures disconcerting. The weekly “Prises de bec” feature, a deeply researched but often cruelly painted profile of a prominent personality in the news, epitomizes this refusal of all cows sacred, embodying instead a vision of the powerful as cynical repositories of the public trust driven by outsized ego and self-interest.

The political world portrayed by the Canard is one in which the promise of political and social change, however admirable the ideal, is a chimera, and those who claim to be fighting on its behalf are in fact waging a purely tactical battle for power and resources. There is something of the anarchist’s contempt for electoral politics to this, but without the analytical foundation and critical distance from which to denounce the bourgeois state (both of the Canard’s webbed feet are quite simply plunged too deep in the political pond). This isn’t to say that the paper eschews ideology altogether—its anticlericalism, abhorrence of xenophobia, suspicion of neoliberalism, and opposition to environmental degradation are stamped on every page. Nor is it to deny that the world of Gallic back-room deals, slush, and corruption the palmiped documents is not in urgent need of the cleansing light of day. But those hungry for an understanding of other, equally important, realities—for in-depth reporting on the shifting structures of capitalism, on gender and social change, or for perspectives from the historic margins of French society—will have to look elsewhere.*

 

Nor should the Canard’s happy economic fortunes be mistaken for evidence of French journalism’s robust health more generally. The hexagon’s newspapers have, like their counterparts elsewhere, struggled mightily against the headwinds of digital media and free print dailies. Le Monde’s daily paid circulation, which stood at around 400,000 paper copies in 2000, had dropped to 284,000 by 2017. The numbers for the irreverent, left-leaning, May ’68-infused Libération are more dismaying still, falling from near 170,000 to just over 75,000 over the same period. In the last decade, overall press circulation in France has fallen by nearly 40 percent and newspaper revenues by 30 percent.

Happy to answer the call from money-losing titles desperate for new capital, a growing number of wealthy French capitalists have bought up news outlets in a bid to expand their influence. François Pinault, owner of the giant Kering luxury group, acquired the weekly Le Point in 1997. The family-owned French defense conglomerate Dassault took control of Le Figaro in 2004, transforming the storied conservative daily into a mouthpiece for Serge Dassault’s right-wing views, his company’s interests, and his own fight against corruption charges. In 2010, Xavier Niel, founder and majority stakeholder in the telecom multinational Iliad, together with investment banker Matthieu Pigasse and Pierre Bergé, co-founder of the Yves Saint-Laurent haute-couture house, took control of Le Monde (whose journalists saw their stake reduced to a blocking minority). Patrick Drahi, owner of the French telecom giant Altice, saved Libération from bankruptcy in 2014 (snatching away the last small stake from its employees, who had had full ownership up until 1981, in the process), and proceeded to assemble a constellation of titles. In 2015, Bernard Arnault, owner of the luxury titan LVMH, richest man in France, and sworn enemy of Pinault, added the daily Le Parisien to his stable of publications.

To be sure, postwar measures in support of newsprint, like the NMPP/Presstalis distribution system, along with subsidized postal rates, reduced payroll taxes, a preferential VAT rate, and favorable income tax brackets for journalists, have softened the blow. As pressure on the industry mounted, Sarkozy’s government in 2009 introduced new public subsidies, which now generously pad newspapers’ bottom lines. In 2015, 326 papers benefited from direct subsidies: Le Monde received nearly 5.5 million euros; Libération’s 6.5 million in public support amounted to roughly 13 percent of the newsstand price of every copy sold. State support now accounts for 15 percent of the sector’s total revenues, making the industry heavily dependent on the public purse.

Amid soul-searching about how shrinking newsrooms and journalistic subservience to corporate paymasters helped make possible Brexit, Donald Trump, and right-wing populism more broadly, might the French system of public support offer a model for other countries? State assistance has, to be sure, helped save the marketplace status quo—no major daily has gone under (unless you count France Soir, launched during the war as a Resistance newssheet and at one time the top-selling paper in France, which ceased print publication in 2011 and today exists only in a rump, digital form). And any full assessment of why the French have stanched the Front National tide at the polls, at least for the moment, must acknowledge the readiness of mainstream newspapers to call out Marine Le Pen’s party for its xenophobia and shady financial dealings. But the cost to taxpayers is not trivial, with the total bill for all forms of support clocking in at 1.8 billion euros per year as of 2017. And most of these funds go to the biggest titles, which tend to be owned by large, profitable multinationals. (It is no small irony that Le Figaro, impassioned proponent of neoliberal deregulation and cuts in public spending, is one of the biggest recipients of state aid, to the tune of 6.5 million taxpayer euros per year.)

Long spared such troubles, France’s regional and local newspapers, along with specialist publications like the sports daily L’Équipe, are now also facing difficulties. These challenges have inspired creative attempts to reinvent journalism for the brave new digital world. Rue89 was launched on the very day Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidency in 2007, as a web-only venue for high-quality journalism and thoughtful opposition to the new right-wing government. While Rue89’s writing was widely admired, the site never posted a profit. In need of capital, it was acquired in 2011 by the Nouvel Observateur (since renamed L’Obs), which completely absorbed the project four years later, laying off half its journalists.

Sharing some of Rue89’s spirit, Mediapart has proven more successful. Launched in 2008 by a group of Libération and Le Monde veterans who staked their own money alongside outside investors (including Niel), they conceived of the publication as a web-only, pay-only, subscriber-only outlet, jealously independent and specialized in investigative journalism. Mediapart first broke even in 2010 and has been profitable since. Sometimes described as the twenty-first century’s digitally savvy investigative answer to the hide-bound Canard, the young title (which now publishes versions in Spanish and English) already has a number of high-profile notches on its investigative belt. Most notably, they broke stories that brought down Sarkozy’s budget minister Éric Woerth in 2010 for brokering illegal campaign donations and Hollande’s budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac for squirreling away assets in offshore tax havens. In 2016 Mediapart posted a 1.9 million-euro profit, with revenues and subscriptions each growing 10 percent; by early 2017 it could boast 130,000 paying subscribers.

And then there is the Canard, blissfully and profitably above the fray. It has preserved its independence from outside investors and state subsidies thanks to its loyal readers and prudent stewardship, systematically plowing all profits back into its cash reserves (though it does benefit from indirect public support via the low tax rates enjoyed by the sector as a whole, as well as approximately 400,000 euros in postal subsidies). Even when circulation numbers drop, as they did from a half-million per week in 2011 to under 400,000 in 2013, the paper’s low overhead and abundant resources ensure it can serenely stay its course.

Struggling periodicals would be hard pressed to draw any straightforward lessons from Le Canard’s experience. Its long history, reserve army of loyal readers, and stockpiled cash are hard-won competitive advantages that would be well-nigh impossible for imitators to reproduce. But its resilience nonetheless suggests that newspapers might want to think twice before entering the capital-hungry, multi-platform race to capture advertising dollars and upscale readerships with multimedia content and proliferating sections on travel, food, and shopping. This is precisely the course Le Monde set for itself when, inspired by the much larger New York Times’s growth strategy, it pursued an ambitious, credit-fueled expansion in the 2000s, acquiring other publications and striving to shed its staid image by adding leisure-oriented content—only for the threat of bankruptcy to force the paper to lay off journalists and cede control to outside investors. Le Canard’s ongoing success suggests there is space for publications that stay small, refuse to overstretch, expect readers to pay for content, and focus on what they do best.

 

Proof that this quixotic holdout from an older age of journalism still has all its investigative chops, the Canard opened its second century of existence by breaking a major story in January 2017 that would sway the year’s presidential election. With former prime minister François Fillon, representing the dominant right-wing party Les Républicains, favored to win, the palmiped began running a series of stories revealing that Fillon had for many years employed his wife Penelope in an apparently fictitious job as a parliamentary assistant. Subsequent revelations of alleged financial improprieties and nepotism took their toll on Fillon’s carefully cultivated image as an austere, conservative Catholic ideally suited to bring cost-cutting sense to profligate France. It was classic Canard: the issue broadcasting the first revelations sold over half a million copies; as poll numbers showed the allegations gaining traction, an increasingly desperate Fillon declared himself the victim of a “media lynching” and sued the Canard for libel; and examining magistrates took an interest in the story, launching formal investigations into the Fillons’ doings. The affair helped send Fillon to defeat in the first round of voting and open the way for Macron’s victory.

As always with its investigative coverage, this was more than another set of antlers on the Canard’s already trophy-packed wall. More too than a straightforward, albeit powerful, example of the Fifth Estate in action, of a free and independent press informing citizens, keeping the powerful in check, and safeguarding democracy. The Canard doesn’t just speak truth to power. It helps us laugh at it. We would do well not to underestimate the salutary pleasure and efficacy of this response. The jubilation we experience in chuckling at the mighty laid low by their own machinations, in puncturing hubris with both truth and satire, function a bit like the carnivalesque cultural forms that the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin first identified in premodern European societies. But carnival, whose transgressive power to turn the world upside down lasts only briefly before the social order is restored, is inherently conservative in nature. In contrast, in the moral economy of democratic, capitalist societies, the Canard’s twin investigative and satirical vocations serve a vital, historically specific, and potentially transformative function. We laugh not (just) out of schadenfreude. To laugh at the ambition and arrogance of the mighty brings special pleasure because we know it can serve as a sometime leveler, a means to see some measure of justice done (Fillon undone, for example). To laugh is to remind ourselves that in free societies we can laugh at those who rule over us—while also to concede that one grandee’s humiliating fall will not abolish corruption or abuse of power. We laugh because we know it was always thus, and probably always will be thus. Above all, we laugh because we know that it should not be thus. Longue vie au Canard.


Paul Cohen is an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto.

 

* The monthly Alternatives Économiques, founded in 1980, and the web-based Bondy Blog, launched during the 2005 riots in the Paris suburbs to give voice to banlieue youth, today hosted by Libération, are good places to start.

 


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