Le Monde S.A. History

21 bis, rue Claude-Bernard
75242 Paris Cedex 05

Telephone: (33) 1 42 17 20 00
Fax: (33) 1 42 17 21 21

Limited Partnership
Incorporated: 1944
Sales: FFr 1.5 billion ($250 million) (1999)
NAIC: 51111 Newspaper Publishers

Key Dates:

Le Monde newspaper launched.
Appearance of 1,000th edition.
Launch of Le Monde Diplomatique weekly.
Circulation tops 200,000.
Circulation tops 800,000 during student riots.
Launch of Le Monde Dossiers et Documents.
Launch of Le Monde de L'Education.
Launch of Le Bilan du Monde.
Sale of rue d'Italie office building.
Construction of new printing plant.
Launch of Le Monde web site.
Company restructures as public limited company.
Creation of subsidiary Le Monde Interactif.
Circulation tops 400,000.
Company announces FFr 150 million printing plant modernization program.

Company History:

Producer of what many consider the most prestigious newspaper in France since the end of the World War II, Le Monde S.A. has expanded its list of publications to include a variety of monthly and other magazine formats, while launching itself into the world of multimedia through its subsidiary Le Monde Interactif. Le Monde is operated as a limited partnership, with much of its shares controlled by its editorial staff, who have long enjoyed a veto over the company's financial and management decisions. In that sense, Le Monde is perhaps unique among the world's daily newspapers, in that its chief executive is chosen by its journalists and editors. Financially, Le Monde has long proved a precarious exercise; after spending much of the 1990s in the red, however, the company has returned to profitability, posting rising revenues (forecasted to reach FFr 1.5 billion for 1999) while increasing its daily readership to more than 400,000 copies. The company has also announced its intention to invest some FFr 150 million in modernizing its printing plants in the year 2000. In addition to the daily newspaper, Le Monde publishes a series of respected specialty papers, including: the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, with 180,000 copies in France and another 300,000 sold internationally; Le Monde des Philatélists, the company's oldest newsmagazine, with a circulation among 40,000 stamp collectors; Le Monde de l'Education, de la Culture et de la Formation, devoted to educational and related trends; Le Monde Dossiers et Documents, directed at a student audience; and Dossiers et Documents Littéraires, also directed toward a student audience, with in~depth treatments of literary topics. Le Monde has been led by Jean-Marie Colombani since 1994.

From the Ruins of the French Press in the 1940s

Tainted by the spectre of collaboration with the Nazi occupier during the Second World War, nearly all of France's daily newspapers--including its most prestigious paper, Le Temps--were banned from further publication after the Liberation. By then, however, the Free French government, led by General Charles de Gaulle in London, had already begun to encourage the formation of a new generation of news dailies. Although setting up a new newspaper was no easy task, particularly in light of the severe shortages of paper during and following the war, the new generation of newspapers was offered a loan of FFr 1 million.

De Gaulle's idea was to encourage the founding of a "serious" newspaper, along the lines of prestigious, internationally respected titles such as the Times of England or the New York Times. In 1944 the team of Hubert Beuve-Méry, René Courtin, and Christian Funck-Brentano took up De Gaulle's challenge, launching a new daily newspaper, Le Monde ("the world"). Born in 1902, Beuve-Méry was to have the greatest impact on Le Monde's growth, and he quickly came to be the embodiment of the newspaper himself. A journalist, acting as a correspondent in Prague for Le Temps before the war, Beuve-Méry quit his position after Le Temps gave its editorial support to the Munich treaty with Hitler in 1938. After working for the newspapers Le Matin and the Petit Journal--where he was confronted with the corruption, opportunism, and low standards of the French press of the period--Beuve-Méry joined the active Resistance. In 1944 the French minister of information recommended to De Gaulle that Beuve-Méry form a new newspaper for postwar France.

Beuve-Méry accepted, opening shop in the former Le Temps headquarters on Paris's rue d'Italie. Paying rent to the former owners of Le Temps, Le Monde was not only based in Le Temps offices, it also made use of the former journal's printing facility and a number of its former employees who had come through the war untainted by the stain of collaboration. The new newspaper even made use of Le Temps' gothic-style letterhead and broadsheet format. Yet Le Monde quickly and resolutely showed its determination to create a new breed of French journalism, free of political favoritism and the courtship of big money interests. With the one million franc loan from the government, Le Monde went to press. The first issue of Le Monde appeared on December 18, 1944, printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper, in an edition of 147,190 copies. Beuve-Méry himself became one of the newspaper's most respected editorialists, signing his columns under the pen name of "Sirius."

Le Monde was able to repay the government loan by April 1945. The paper had met with success among the country's--particularly the Paris region's--readers. By the end of the decade, the company's average press runs neared 170,000 copies. Le Monde, which was operating nonetheless in a continuously precarious financial condition, celebrated its 1,000th edition in 1948. Shortly after, the company entered the first of many management crises.

Le Monde had originally been set up as a limited liability company, with its direction shared among a tightly closed circle of seven directors, who were forbidden to open the company's capital to outside interests. The company ran into its first management crisis as the world entered a new type of war--the Cold War. Despite the Soviet threat to western Europe, Le Monde, under Beuve-Méry, was determined to retain its neutral position, both in respect to the French government and to the world political scene. The company's co~founders, Courtin and Funck-Brentano, disagreed with this approach, however, and after a clash with Beuve-Méry, stepped down from the directors' positions in 1949. The ensuing crisis extended for the next two years. Finally, as the paper's financial health became increasingly fragile, Beuve-Méry suggested that the company be disbanded and that he be allowed to step down from his position as Le Monde's chief.

The resulting furor from the paper's editorial staff changed the nature of the company's management. The editorial staff proclaimed its right to participate in decisions affecting the company's direction; the paper's editors and journalists also demanded that Beuve-Méry be reinstated as Le Monde's editor-in-chief. Following on the editorial staff's actions was support from an unusual front. The newspaper's readership, too, demanded a say in the paper's direction. Forming their own association, Les Lecteurs du Monde, the newspaper's readers, stating that they refused to be treated "as an object, a thing, a piece of merchandise," succeeded in gaining a position on the company's board of directors, alongside the editorial staff. The newly composed directorship, now composed of 280 shares, met in December 1951 and reinstated Beuve-Méry in his position. Le Monde became unique among the world's leading newspapers in that its readership shared a strong role in the company's direction.

By the mid-1950s, Le Monde's circulation had swelled to more than 200,000 copies. Yet the company continued to face a great deal of pressure, both financial and political. In 1956 a new newspaper appeared on Paris's newsstands. Called Le Temps de Paris, the new daily openly declared its intention to 'destabilize' Le Monde. Instead, Le Temps de Paris folded just three months later. By then, however, the French government, led by Guy Mollet, took its own stab at destabilizing Le Monde--which remained an open and respected critic of the French political system, no matter which party held the current power. Faced with rising costs, particularly as a result of the institution of the French press distribution monopoly, Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne (NMPP), created in 1947, Le Monde sought government approval to increase its prices. After the government refused its permission, Le Monde's readership once again came to the newspaper's rescue, buying multiple copies or simply sending the company checks to make up the sought-after difference in price.

By the time of its 20th anniversary, Le Monde had succeeded in gaining a measure of financial stability. The company had completed the purchase of the rue d'Italie offices, while also extending its printing capacity to some 150,000 copies per hour. The company's revenues topped FFr 40 million, while its readership continued to enjoy average levels of 200,000 copies. Le Monde's readership was to explode--if only briefly--during the student movement of 1968, which had adopted Le Monde as its 'official' newspaper. Sales of Le Monde reached more than 800,000 copies. The company, however, was about to enter a new period of financial and management crisis.

Diversification for the 21st Century

Beuve-Méry retired in 1969, succeeded by Jacques Fauvet. Under Fauvet, Le Monde began a series of expansion moves to take it beyond its reliance on its single newspaper product. Although this process had already begun in the 1950s, with the appearance of the title Le Monde des Livres, and of the weekly Le Monde Diplomatique, launched in 1954, which quickly gained an international reputation for the quality of its in-depth coverage of major issues of the day, the company's expansion was approached more deliberately beginning with the 1970s. Among the new Le Monde titles created in the 1970s were Le Monde Dossiers et Documents, directed at a high school and university student readership, launched in 1973; Le Bilan du Monde, a review of the year's economic and social events, created in 1975; and the influential Le Monde de L'Education, launched in 1974 and later extended as Le Monde de L'Education, de la Culture et de la Formation.

Le Monde entered the 1970s with an average readership of 500,000. By the beginning of the 1980s, however, the newspaper was once again facing a grave crisis, as its readership slipped back to less than 250,000. The economic recession of the 1970s had lowered readers' enthusiasm for daily newspaper purchases. A new management crisis, involving the choice of a successor to Fauvet and lasting more than two years, had tarnished Le Monde's image. Worse, the paper had lost much of its former credibility. If Le Monde under Beuve-Méry had held fast to its independence&mdashø the point where the paper grew to face the outright hostility of former benefactor De Gaulle--during the 1970s the paper had increasingly begun to support the position of the country's Socialist Party, not only while in opposition, but after the Socialists had taken over the government under Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1974.

By the early 1980s, Le Monde was no longer known as the independent critic of French politics, but as a mouthpiece for the Socialist government. The taint to its image--and disappointment among its readership--led to steady losses in circulation. Meanwhile, the company, which had long enjoyed a position as publisher of France's leading daily newspaper, saw rival Le Figaro pass it in circulation. At the same time, new competition appeared on the French newsstands, with the launch of the daily Libération, which quickly established its popularity among the 15-35 year age group.

Le Monde's losses mounted and took on still greater momentum in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To rescue the company from an increasingly drastic financial position in the mid-1980s, the company's direction, now under André Fontaine, undertook a series of heavily criticized actions, including the sale of the company's rue d'Italie building, a reduction of staff, and a ten percent cut in salaries. At the same time, the company brought in new personnel for its administrative departments. Finally, in 1987, Le Monde opened its shares to outside investors. Accepting the participation of a number of institutional investors, who joined the newly created shareholding group Le Monde Entreprises, the company's shares were divided as well among its editors, journalists, and readers, under the Société des Lecteurs du Monde. At the same time, the company spun off its advertising sales division into a joint partnership with the advertising agency Publicis, creating the subsidiary Régie Press (later Le Monde Publicité), with Le Monde retaining a controlling 51 percent share.

If the company was able to stabilize its readership, its financial position was soon hit by a new recession, one that was to grip France into the middle of the 1990s. Le Monde had taken on a new debt burden, with the construction of a new, modern printing facility at Ivry-sur-Seine; while sharing the costs with publisher Hachette, which purchased 34 percent of the new subsidiary Le Monde Imprimerie, the purchase came to hurt the company as its readership was once again under pressure from the failing economic climate. The company was also about to enter yet again a protracted battle for its leadership.

By 1996, Jean-Marie Colombani had emerged as victor, taking the position as the company's chief executive. Colombani set about transforming the company, launching what quickly became known as 'le nouveau Monde' ('the new world'). After changing the company's stature, from limited liability company to a public limited company, permitting it to raise more potential investments, Colombani led a redesign of the newspaper's look, increasing the number of graphics and improving readability, while adding new supplements and sections.

The 'new world' quickly found success among France's readership, and the paper began making steady gains in average daily sales through the second half of the 1990s. The success of the new Monde look led the company's other publications to adopt a similar graphic styling. By 1999, Le Monde had succeeding in pulling itself out of the red, and its average readership levels topped 400,000 for the first time in 20 years. Meanwhile, Le Monde had begun to prepare for the future, making a new diversification move into the world of multimedia with the launch of subsidiary Le Monde Interactif in 1998. Created to take charge of the newspaper's web site--one of the French-speaking world's most popular--and to develop it into an important francophone 'portal,' Le Monde Interactif also took over development of such product areas as CDs and CD-ROMs, while beginning the process of building an electronic archive of the Le Monde newspapers going back to its 1944 beginnings. At the same time, the company prepared for the future, announcing in January 2000 its intention to invest FFr 150 million in modernizing its printing plant.

Principal Subsidiaries: Le Monde Interactif (65%); Le Monde Publicité (51%).

Principal Competitors: Le Figaro; Le Soir; The Herald Tribune; Libération.

Further Reading:

  • Eveno, Patrick, Le Monde, 1944-1995, histoire d'une entreprise de presse, Paris: Le Monde Editions, 1996.
  • Feraud, Jean-Christophe, 'Le Monde va développer sa filiale multimédia en partenariat avec le groupe Grolier Interactive,' Les Echos, January 8, 1999, p. 18.
  • 'French Daily 'Le Monde' Barred,' Africa News Service, November 15, 1999.
  • 'Jean-Marie Colombani: `Le Premier ministre doit se saisir du dossier NMPP,' Les Echos, January 18, 2000, p. 21.
  • 'Le Monde, France's Largest National Newspaper, Selects Unisys e-&#064ction Publishing Solutions,' Business Wire, December 22, 1999.
  • Thibau, Jacques, 'Le Monde.' Histoire d'un journal. Un journal dans l'Histoire, Paris: Nouvelle édition, Plon, 1996.
  • Tuttle, Alexandra, 'Lofty in Tone, Austere in Appearance,' Time International, October 15, 1990, p. 54.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 33. St. James Press, 2000.