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  paris - lionel lumbroso

the daily news @ libération

From its inception as a newspaper for workers on strike to the facilities in which it operates today (a parking lot) to the various forms of its Web presence, Libération tends to stand out in the French press and to reveal a few facts on where France is at.

Located not far from the Place de la République in Paris, the Libération building is a surprisingly made over parking lot: you walk up a large carpeted alley that used to be the spiral ramp for cars and each parking half-floor is now an open space for one editorial section of the newspaper. Numerous windows and glass partitions have naturally been added.

But you don't necessarily realize that immediately. Funny how familiar objects or settings look unfamiliar, even eerie, when reused differently. The man I came to see, Laurent Mauriac, had to point it out. "Of course!", you say, "I knew something was... different". And then, for the rest of your visit, you tend to have Before/After flashes!

Facts, please...

liberation logo Libération is the fourth or fifth best-selling newspaper in France but it is still very young and has an original story: Founded 23 years ago in the aftermath of May'68 with the support of writer-philosoph turned activist Jean-Paul Sartre, Libération was initially owned by its employees, who were all paid equally, from the editor-in-chief to the cleaning ladies.

A generous and idealistic but hard to maintain policy. Over the years, Libération mutated to a more normal left-oriented daily, still headed and inspired by baby-boomers.

Classy multimedia supplement -
"Can do better" Web site

With that kind of a past, it is not entirely surprising that it was the first French newspaper to devote a weekly 8-page supplement to the Internet, at the end of 1994. And a rather intelligent one at that, with educated editorials as well as "how to" sections, a weekly column by Silicon Valley French expat guru Jean-Louis Gassée and well-chosen special reports.

Libération was also the first newspaper to open its own Web site in May 1995 on a US site first, and later on a French site. In 18 months, however, they have shown nothing very spectacular on it.

Cold passion

So I went there to ask Laurent Mauriac, in charge of the multimedia supplement and of the Web site, what his plans were. There was a pilgrimage side to the visit, too: I've been reading the newspaper since it came out. Being there, amid the people behind the lines, I was however slightly worried to hear cynical comments belying the incisive and humanistic tone of the paper, and to discover that a posture I respect could be just faked for the public eye. (How suspicious we've gotten to be!)

Mauriac told me very coldly how passionate he felt about the Internet. This sort of things puts me ill-at-ease. I tried different questioning angles (come on, man, unbutton yourself!), but couldn't get Laurent to really open up. The day's info is that a monthly debate on a given topic will be at the center of both the supplement and the Web site this season. It doesn't sound like a revolution and isn't one. It makes you wonder whether a paper medium can produce a relevant web form without dedicating a hefty budget to it (which is not the case here).

Lone journalist does Web at night

Or maybe the Web is not a question of means, but mostly of spirit. Case in point: A journalist from another section of Libération, David Dufresne, manages his own Web site from home, at night.


La Rafale (ie. machine gun burst) oozes of something that Web Liberation lacks: real Web funk. Its webmaster wails at the advent of the commercial Web and you can feel his palpable dejection and growing envy to just end it all very soon. A bit too fallen-from-grace romantic for me. But otherwise, he writes perfectly mastered and soulful articles for Liberation. Do you have to be a "webwolf" to produce authentic web substance?

A true precursor in free expression?

Let's not however write off Libération as just another inadequate net player. For one thing, they do their job of reporting about it on paper quite decently. For another, this is a newspaper in which, in its first leftist incarnation, typists once decided to insert their occasional comments in the articles they keyed in (we're talking pre-PC time here). In true communal, everybody-has-a-right-to-express fashion, nobody said anything about it. For several years, readers were treated not only to the journalist's comments, but occasionally to the typist's as well. Often irritating, sometimes invigorating, always instructive.

Yesterday, Frédéric Filloux founder of Libe's multimedia supplement and former boss of Mauriac replied to an email of mine: "Don't be mad at Mauriac, he's hyperstressed, gets to deal with one problem after another, runs taut like a bow. I've known that myself; it's no excuse but explains a lot. Libé is really hell and I'm glad I left."

Uh oh! The positive image of my morning's newspaper in danger of being shattered again? I'M NOT LISTENING. Whatever the backstage commotion, how could I give up starting the day with Libe, a strong expresso and a croissant at a Café table?!


shermozle said:

Minitel really is an amazing device. The French government's foresight and laissez-faire attitudes to censorship should set an example for other world governments contemplating new technologies. Because Minitel is ubiquitous, it's still immensely useful. You can book trains, see what's on at the movies, chat--just about everything that you'll be able to do on the Web someday soon. But it's all there now in all it's coloured ASCII glory! Until everything is online and everyone has a terminal, we won't see the amount of usefulness you get from Minitel on the Web.

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Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), a writer, philosopher, and resistance fighter, he was called "the conscience of our time." 80,000 people attended his funeral.

France tends to retain some of the Left's positive values. Separation of church and state, tolerance and acceptance of the Other, concern for the disadvantaged. Even under a Right-wing government, the attachment to public services and common good is still strong.


Marianne, the personnification of the French Republic, adorns Place de la République in Paris.
Laurent Mauriac

Laurent Mauriac, head of the multimedia supplement, on the spiral ramp.

Each half-floor is an open space for one of the newspaper's sections.

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