Vive La Presse

President Sarkozy recently announced a series of seemingly radical initiatives to revive the ailing French press. Will they work? Peter Preston places the measures in the context of France’s post war press settlement and concludes that they are extremely unlikely to succeed.

By Peter Preston

Two big issues became desperately entangled when France's rather small president set out to rescue the press a few weeks ago. One - the stuff of instant headlines - involved the French state agreeing to give every 18-year-old in the land a year's worth of free copies of the newspaper of their choice as a birthday present. Get them hooked and, at last, there'll be an elixir of life for newspapers who can't find young readers for love, money or ten minutes with the internet turned off. But perhaps Issue Two, and the questions it poses, run even wider and deeper than that. Simply, should governments and national treasuries be bailing out print journalists as though they were car makers caught in the crunch? Is Mr Sarkozy a true friend of the press, or a wolf come to blow the house down?

Post war settlement

You need to step back a little to begin answering either question, because France is a very special (and somewhat despondent) case.

Once upon a time, over 70 years ago, the French bought and devoured daily papers just as voraciously as their neighbours in Germany or across the Channel. But then the disaster of defeat and occupation happened. When the Allies brought liberation, they also brought internecine bitterness and retribution in their kitbags.

Newspapers that had aided, or softly co-existed with, Nazi rule vanished in shame.

The state re-born took responsibility for every jot and tittle of newspaper distribution, including the number of street newsstands licensed to do business. It also insisted on equality of display for all papers and magazines which wanted a place on those stands. Everything - in common with much else in French life - was deemed a matter for central government decision-making. A "free" press couldn't choose its own cover price, make its own deals with militant unions or decide on a distribution pattern that met its needs.

Intolerable? Apparently not, most of the time, for such control came as part of a bargain, with the Elysee Palace playing protector of first resort.

If you wanted a fat loan to build new plant or subsidies to keep the transport system moving, or funds to bankroll overseas sales, then the government was there - offering tax breaks on demand (including a thick slice of income tax less for journalists themselves).

Unintended consequences

The motives may have been good enough: France was bent on keeping the plural voices of democracy debating loudly. But the net effect was far more deadening. Running a newspaper meant indulging in an everlasting internal dialogue with the state and officialdom.

Editors worried about what ministers said and what civil servants prescribed: they did not worry so much about winning, or keeping, readers.

But 'no worry' also meant no success. Even before the latest recessionary lurch downwards, French daily sales - all titles included - hovered around eight million a day, not much better than half the ratio of circulation to population in Britain or Germany. And the biggest Parisian titles - Le Monde and Le Figaro - were struggling to keep circulation above 300,000. In UK terms, they'd have been in the ABC relegation zone, doing better than the Independent but trailing behind the Times, FT, Telegraph, Guardian and every red top or middle market tabloid going.

Nor, significantly, had they seen fit to open any lifeline to greater circulation glory. That internal dialogue, obsessed with navel-gazing and political manoeuvrings, found no scope for creating mass market papers like Bild from Berlin or the Sun. If the bourgeoisie wanted tittle-tattle, then there were glossy magazines ready to supply their needs. Paris's presses dwelt on higher things whilst - out in the country - the frailties of distribution gave fat regional papers virtual monopoly status. It was, and remains, a lousy platform to fight for survival once the winds of desolation begin to blow.

The wrong remedy

Now, of course, such an account risks arriving with an outsize helping of Anglo-Saxon prejudice. France in the round isn't Britain: different history, different economy, different traditions. And that doesn't mean France is a basket case whilst John Bull rules the world (or even Canary Wharf). What it does mean, however, is that ideas like Sarkozy's birthday treat for 18-year-olds have slim chance of success.

The idea itself - the publishers provide free copies, the state pays delivery charges - was one amongst 90 put to the Elysee by the 'Etats Generaux de la Presse' (the NPA and Newspaper Society rolled into one) in a carefully constructed Green Paper. Ouest France, a regional giant, and other smaller titles, had tested it over several years and found 15% of the young readers concerned taking out paid subscriptions once their free year was over. But, even before implementation later this year, there's widespread scepticism amongst French publishers. "Mere band-aid when radical surgery is needed”, says Aralynn McMane, director of young readership research at the World Association of Newspapers' Paris headquarters. “If the content is not compelling, free subscriptions are a waste." If France, she means, goes on producing papers for middle-aged ABC1 males immersed in politics and bored with sport, then no normal teenager is going to linger reading them for long.

Can you be caught young?

More grimly still, there's very little in other European or American experience to make the concept of "catching them young" seem a winner.

Sales are sliding generally, while the average age of readership is nudging ever upwards - and no magic wands in the offing.

Cut-rate copies for students? But subsequent take-up is tiny, and loyalty to the title read at university vestigial as readers age and move into family life. Free sheets such as Red in Chicago or Metro in Britain were specifically tailored for a young audience used to bite-size consumer consumption on the net - your starter for 50 years of print addiction allegedly. But there's no real research to show that they have or can turn casual readers into regular subscribers later in life.

The average age of a UK Metro reader was 35 some ten years ago when Britain's most successful free was launched - and remains 35 to this day. It may be judged a success on many criteria: but not as a means of creating a new generation of paying customers. Maybe France will prove the doubters wrong in the end, but don't bet on it. The team that put those 90 demands to the Elysee would have done other things - say hiring young reporters to enliven old news rooms - first. This wheeze, basically a combination of targeted bulks and government transport subsidies, rings few bells when they examine it now.

State aid US/UK style

On that second, wider field of issues, though, you can hear many other bells ringing insistently - and would be well advised not to scoff. Perhaps a fourth estate dependent of state largesse or tax concessions doesn't fit our traditional Anglo-Saxon model, but see how hard times make for ever harder choices in the heart of free enterprise, USA. John Nichols, who runs the influential Free Press blog, wants a $200 tax break for everybody ordering a daily paper. Ken Doctor, the wise old newspaper hand who runs Content Bridges, says flatly that “Sarkozy's stunning action may start fresh thinking in America and speed the pace of initiatives already well into action.” It isn't just Detroit that needs bailing out: around charitable foundations, state Capitols or Washington DC, the song is becoming the same.

If the French press can get government help in slashing production costs by up to 40%, freeing distribution, wooing outside investors, renovating presses, installing new websites and seeing state advertising double at the flick of some central Paris switch, then why be too sniffy about parallel hand-outs from Obama and Co? The crunch comes with sledgehammer attached. And if America, in extremis, begins to drift that way, perhaps we may be obliged to put some long-standing UK beliefs on the block as well.

You can raise eyebrows in Newspaper Society circles by making any mention of Whitehall rescue acts. Editors and publishers don't want to be beholden to a beneficent Gordon Brown. They reacted coolly in conference last year when the editor of the Guardian was brave enough to float a few ideas in this area.

And yet, on investigation, there are several sub-French dependencies we shouldn't forget. Even the French, at a very modest 2.1%, pay VAT when they buy their paper. Only Britain and Denmark reject this "tax on knowledge" (in the publishers’ own propaganda terminology). But let's not pretend that this lack of a tax is somehow an act of god. It's an act of government, a hidden bargaining chip to be played in the open when relations get tough.

Throw in a new emollience on merger policy, a reverence for the Press Complaints Commission, plus baronies and knighthoods by the dozen, and you can't say that the British press exists in a sealed box of perfect righteousness, unaffected in any way by machinations in the Downing Street region.

Press independence here is roughly as vulnerable as Mr Brown finds himself when he opens Number Ten's door and lets Mr Rupert Murdoch inside for tea and buns. A tale of two men and two pockets. Which is why there are reasons for travelling warily along President Sarkozy's front path.

An industry in anxious decline is vulnerable to all manner of power plays, just as an industry cocooned against change is an industry bereft of initiative. The idea that a free Le Monde or Le Figaro once a week - and it could indeed be once a week, because free copy frequency under this plan is still wrapped in a shroud of indecision - is going to revive French print fortunes frankly beggars imagination. Le Monde, like its leftish rival, Liberation, has become pretty much of a hospital case, paralysed by both indecision and a curious arrogance. The crisis is complex, cruel and almost ubiquitous.

Can Sarkozy, over two decades after Rupert, light some blue touch paper and engineer a French Wapping? Can he break the hold of the print and transport unions and hand newspapers a chance of embracing technology at the same price as the rest of Europe? And can he contrive, too, to step back and give France's newspapermen the freedom to chart their own destiny? Perhaps: but if any of that happens, it really will be time to light candles on something bigger than an 18-year-old's birthday cake.