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The Press: Making Le Point

5 minute read

To Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, the appearance of a new newsmagazine was a Gaullist plot against his successful anti-regime weekly L’Express. “The government tried to muzzle me through Le Point,” the publisher-politician-author says of his rival, “and it hasn’t worked out. We have won the battle.” To Claude Imbert, Le Point’s editor and Servan-Schreiber’s former colleague, the aim is to give French readers a taste of journalism free of ideology, an antidote to the “current breed of French intellectuals in the press and elsewhere, with their leftist dogmas and complacent nihilism.” To Simon Nora, head of Le Point’s parent company, the battle has just begun, and it is nothing more than old-fashioned competition. L’Express has flourished with a TIME-like format; “All we’re doing,” says Nora, “is trying to create a viable Newsweek.”

Verbal duels aside, Le Point’s debut two months ago was a high point in a fascinating contest within Paris’ politically marbled journalistic establishment. The brouhaha really began in 1970, when J.J. S.S. won a seat in the National Assembly representing his somewhat left-of-center Radical Party.

In the months that followed, editorial complaints about the publisher’s “politicization” of L’Express swelled into a full-scale office revolt; a showdown between Servan-Schreiber and his staff in mid-1971 resulted in the mass resignation of the magazine’s senior editorial staff. Nine of the former L’Express men began to meet regularly to plan a new magazine to compete with their former employer.

Eventually the group presented its concept to Nora, general director of Librairie Hachette, a giant firm that owns 50 publications. The company also has links with the reigning Gaullist Party. Ironically, Nora himself was one of Servan-Schreiber’s closest associates during the launching of L’Express in 1953, but the friendship iced over after Nora accepted a government post. The bad blood between the two added spice to Hachette’s decision to publish Le Point. “Between such good friends gone wrong,” says one top Paris journalist, “there can be nothing but cadavers.”

Hachette launched a $2,000,000 promotion campaign, ridiculing French journalistic “conformity” and promising Le Point’s independence of everybody, including owners—a slap at Servan-Schreiber’s control of L’Express. Stung by Servan-Schreiber’s charge that Hachette would use Le Point to parrot the government line, Publisher Olivier Chevrillon and Editor Imbert argued that since Servan-Schreiber’s entry into partisan politics, “L’Express has ceased to be a true newsmagazine.” Le Point, they promised, would be objective.

So far, the magazine has justified neither the fears of its detractors nor the hopes of its founders. Its first issue carried a cover photograph of President Georges Pompidou above a banner asking CRISIS OF THE REGIME?: the story inside focused on scandals in his administration. Subsequent numbers have pushed no political line; indeed, French readers, accustomed to tilted journalism, have complained that they don’t know where Le Point stands. In recent weeks the magazine has urged retention of the force de frappe, France’s nuclear-weapons unit, and the construction of a major new port near Marseille, both targets of L’Express’s scorn. According to Imbert, the editors plan in the near future “to personalize the style somewhat, to get away from the strictly reportorial tone.”

Le Point has thus far based its claim for individuality largely on the lavish use of color and other graphic devices that seem to be borrowed from a number of magazines, including TIME, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. L’Express typography is bland by comparison. The new magazine has also developed strong feature departments, and is crisply written. Stories on the huge new skyscrapers destroying Parisian vistas and on the ecological dangers of the plastics industry broke new ground. But so far Le Point has not matched L’Express’s skill at gathering hard news. With the first hints of a Viet Nam settlement, for instance, L’Express hit the stands with a cover photo of President Thieu and a substantial story on the negotiations; Le Point did not cover the story fully until the following week.

With a full-time editorial staff of 33 and weekly sales of 140,000 (down from 300,000 for the premier issue), Le Point poses no immediate threat to L’Express, which boasts a staff of 85 and a circulation of 600,000. In fact, competition seems to have strengthened L’Express; the Nov. 6 issue set records for size (224 pages) and ad revenue ($600,000). Le Point expects to be a money-losing operation until 1974; in the meantime Hachette’s resources should assure its short-term survival. Sources in the publishing field think that Le Point’s big test will come in next spring’s legislative elections. If the magazine vociferously supports Pompidou’s embattled Gaullists, it may be irrevocably branded a government mouthpiece. Publisher Chevrillon thinks that Le Point will be strong enough by election time to back whom it pleases and ignore such charges. “There’s room for us,” he says, “and we’ll prove it then.”

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