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Press: Duck Hunting

4 minute read

All that glitters is fair game

When it comes to investigative reporting, most French newspapers and magazines waddle along in step with their favorite political party, or shy away whenever the government frowns. A dazzling and from the government’s standpoint most damnable exception is the weekly paper Le Canard Enchaîné—literally, The Chained Duck—which pursues scandal with all the gusto of a Gallic gourmet tucking into a baba au rhum. These days the Chained Duck is flapping its wings triumphantly, and no wonder: dangling from its bill is the meticulously aloof French President, Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

In its last two issues, Le Canard charged that Giscard, both when he was Finance Minister and after he became President in 1974, had graciously accepted 50 carats in diamonds—the first 30 alone valued at $240,000—from Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the sadistic former “Emperor” of the Central African Republic.

Bokassa reportedly also gave state gifts to Giscard’s brother, two of the President’s cousins, a top adviser and a pair of Cabinet ministers. Tart and punful as always, the Duck dubbed the affair “Giscarat.”

Founded in 1915 “to kill with ridicule those who profess the virtue of war,” the left-leaning Canard (circ. 550,000) has skewered generations of French leaders with needle wit and wicked cartoons.

It was closed down during World War II, but before and after, during the hapless Third and the revolving-door Fourth Republic, stirred its editors to punishing glee. Le Canard also thrives on serious controversy. Says Chief Editor Roger Fressoz (pen name: Andre Ribaud): “We began doing more investigative reporting with the Algerian War, when French citizens began to ask for more information.”

Its greatest subject was Charles de Gaulle.

Along with his saturnine sideman, Georges Pompidou, “le grand Charletan” provided the Duck with a target as big as the Ritz. He was caricatured endlessly and uproariously as an arrogant, sleepy-eyed, bulbous-nosed autocrat.

This decade Le Canard has been more enterprising. It revealed that the Gaullist resistance hero Jacques Chaban-Delmas had used legal loopholes to avoid paying income tax for three years, virtually killing his bid for the presidency in 1974. The Duck also unearthed some questionable financial dealings by the murdered Prince Jean de Broglie, a man with close ties to the Giscard administration, and printed the income tax dossiers of both Giscard and Aviation Tycoon Marcel Dassault. The government paid Le Canard a bumbling tribute one night when its agents were discovered in the paper’s offices trying to implant bugging devices. “Watergaffe,” quacked the Duck, and proudly proclaimed itself “the most listened-to newspaper in France.”

Investigative reporting in France is sharply restricted. Television stations are state-owned, and the national news service, Agence France Presse, is headed by a political ally of Giscard. Newspapers are vulnerable too, some because they have received government-guaranteed loans, others because they need the advertising directed their way by the state-controlled publicity conglomerate, Havas.

Le Canard keeps independent by restricting stock ownership to its staff of 35 full-time journalists. They, in turn, elect the chief editor, set salaries, and decide how much needs to be reinvested in their profitable ($400,000 after taxes in 1978) enterprise. All revenues come from circulation, since the Duck refuses to accept any advertising. Explains a staffer: “This way we can say merde to everyone without offending any advertisers.” Having Establishment pretensions is virtually a firing offense. Indeed, a Canard writer was once dismissed for wearing the Legion of Honor. “But I didn’t ask for it,” he protested. Replied his editor: “Well, you shouldn’t have done anything to deserve it.”

Between journalistic coups, Le Canard keeps busy (and lively) by rendering public figures, fine and fatuous alike, into duck soup. Good taste is hardly ever an obstacle. Pope John Paul II has been depicted as a nude bather and a disco king, and the Ayatullah Khomeini has been anointed the ‘Fuhrer of Islam.”

Portly Premier Raymond Barre often stumbles into the line of fire, sometimes drawn in the nude or in women’s clothing, answering to “Babarre,” an elephantine pun, or, more directly, “Raymond l’Ignorant.”

Festooning its pages with diamond cartoons, Le Canard is now darkly hinting at multifaceted revelations to come.

The editors are undeterred, they say, by the arrest of a bureaucrat suspected of being the paper’s government informer, and unimpressed by the threat of a lawsuit from Giscard’s cousins, or by the President’s pledge last week to answer the charges at an appropriate time. Quack. Quack. Or couin-couin, as ducks say in France.

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