IN PRAISE OF PROGRESS. Denis Olivennes is a senior French civil servant, entrepreneur and essayist. Among other things, he was the boss of Canal +, Nouvel Observateur, Europe 1 radio, Elle and Paris Match. Since June 2020, Denis Olivennes has been shareholder and CEO of the French daily newspaper Libération.
You can listen to this interview as a podcast here.
Denis Olivennes, why did you decide to become a majority partner of a newspaper, at a time when newspapers were not doing so well?
There is a reversal of a long period of decline of the press sector. Digital subscriptions offer a new model for the daily press. The revolution began in the United States with The Washington Post and The New York Times. The possibility of redeveloping our reader numbers is in front of us. At the maximum Libération’s circulation was 250,000 readers. When I arrived at Libération the circulation was 80,000. Now, after only one year with digital subscriptions, we are at around 90,000. We gained 10,000 readers in one year, which is not so bad. And among our buyers there are 56,000 digital subscribers now against 30,000 a year ago.
What is the story of Libération?
Libération is an incredible press adventure. In 1971 some Maoist guys created a newspaper to be the advocate of the people and the revolution. After 10 years they discovered the pleasure of being journalists and decided to get rid of the Maoism and to create a new journalism. Mitterrand and the Socialists had been elected and a brand new society was emerging in front of them. They wanted to be the newspaper of that period; and they succeeded tremendously.
Were they in competition with Le Monde and other established newspapers?
Yes, but not really, because, for instance, they gave space to pictures as no newspaper had done before them. They were like a picture magazine. They decided to cover in an original, literary way issues that serious newspapers refused to cover, like fashion, nightclubbing or … horse racing! They were a leftist, intellectual, artistic, cultural newspaper, and their style and way of writing was different from the usual newspaper.
Were they very good writers and journalists?
Yes, on every page it was such a pleasure to read them. In fact they didn’t recruit journalists. They recruited people with strange experience. One had been a sailor, another a workman. These people liked to write, and they created a new kind of journalism.
“We have to again be the place of intellectual and cultural discussion, of cultural exchange.”
Denis Olivennes, at the same time there were people like Jean-Paul Sartre?
Sartre was in at the foundation, the Maoist period, but then he left and the leader of that adventure was Serge July.
Wasn’t he a journalist?
Not really. He became a journalist in creating a journal. For 20 or 30 years Libération was the trendiest and most exciting place to be. Everybody wanted to be there.
Then it declined?
Yes, because newspapers were confronted with the digital revolution and lost their circulation. Libération also lost its spirit; not completely, but in a certain way. And Serge July left Libé: a big loss.
What are you doing with Libération today?
We want Libération to return to the cultural place it used to occupy, even if it’s on new terms because the world has changed. It will be more a digital newspaper than a print one, but it must also become again the newspaper of the whole left. Today it is too tiny.
What is the left today? It has changed a lot since the time of Mao!
That’s why Libération has to reopen its mind, in order to be able to speak to all the value sensitivities. There are the people who are ecologists, green; those who stay anti-capitalist; those who are Social Democrats; the ones who are liberal. There is not one left. When we asked our readers in which of these families they belong, they said we don’t want to be in one family; we take 10 percent here, 5 percent there, 20 percent there. So we have to be open-minded.
How are you preparing for the elections coming in eight months?
The philosophy of Libération now is that we can’t endorse or support a government. We have to be vigilant, to analyse without complacency. The motto of Libération is that somebody who used his power in a wrong way must spend a bad night because of us. The other point is we have to again be the place of intellectual and cultural discussion, of cultural exchange, where writers want to be.
Do you have journalists now, or is it still people who are not journalists?
We have a lot of journalists; and we try to recruit people with a new or unconventional approach.
How was it for Libération during the period of coronavirus?
For newspapers in general, and especially for Libération, Corona virus was unhappily a good period. People were at home and wanted to have information. Digital access to the press was developed, and it drastically improved our subscription base.
Do you personally work in the editorial part of the paper?
No, it’s forbidden. The editors run a totally independent newsroom. The editor-in-chief is elected by the journalists. I have the right to present his candidature, but he has to be elected.
Who is the editor-in-chief?
Dov Alfon. Born in France, he grew up in Israel and was the editor-in-chief of Ha’aretz. He also writes detective novels. In short, he is brilliant on the content but also on the technology. I proposed him because Ha’aretz is a kind of Israeli Libération and he also managed the digital revolution of Ha’aretz.
“Somebody who used his power in a wrong way must spend a bad night because of us.”
Denis Olivennes, you were at Europe 1 and now you are a newspaper publisher. Are you nostalgic for the radio?
No, because I love print. I created my first newspaper when I was 17 in the Lycée. I was editor-in-chief of the Nouvel Observateur, a weekly, next to Jean Daniel, who was the statue du commandeur. 20 years ago, Serge July asked me to come and work with him at Libération and for a lot of reasons I said no. So to come back now, 20 years later, when Libération is in bad shape but has a new chance to again be a very influential, creative and interesting newspaper is an incredible opportunity in the life of somebody who likes newspapers.
Do French people give importance to newspapers?
I think so. France, probably Italy too, is a country in which there is this overinvestment in intellectual things. We give more importance to writers than to businessmen. The newspaper is where all the academics and writers can express their opinions, and our leaders like to read them. When I was in Lagardère, a very important press group, I was in charge of Le Journal de Dimanche. It was 150,000 copies, not so important, but every Sunday I had a phone call from the president of the republic or from the prime minister who said, “I read that in your newspaper. How can you write that?”
In 1940 Marc Bloch wrote a book whose title was L’Étrange Défaite (Strange Defeat). He explained why this big country France was so quickly defeated by the Germans. It’s not at all the same situation, but I asked myself why has France accepted decline for 40 years? What happened?
Do you mean that France is a much poorer country today?
No, it’s a richer country, but the rate of growth is declining which creates a lot of issues. The French people are coping with the crisis in the banlieues; the question of immigration; recently we have the Gilets Jaunes revolt, the revolution of the middle class; the civil servant crisis. All these issues are related to one problem, which is that we do not have enough growth.
Because, and that’s my main concern because I’m from the left side of the political scene, the left had a very strong influence on the values and the imagination of our country and made a wrong analysis. They made a wrong analysis on unemployment. They decided that the best way to struggle against unemployment was to divide and share the work. We decided to retire at 60 years old, and so on and so on. Of all the rich countries ours is the one in which our time in work is the smallest. How do you create wealth and welfare if you work less? It’s just impossible.
Are French people lazy?
No. It’s the wrong strategy. The left was unable to understand that if you want to redistribute money, if you want to create employment, you don’t have to destroy growth, you have to create new growth with innovation. Now we have this major issue of climate change, and the reaction of the Green Party, the ecologists, is less innovation and stop growth. That’s the Greta Thunberg idea, that if we want to struggle against climate change we have to stop producing, stop flying, and so on and so on. This is a crazy idea. In order to protect the planet we will destroy our society, and it’s an especially crazy idea for poor people in undeveloped countries who don’t even have basic infrastructure.
What is your opinion of the Green movement that is so successful all over the world?
It’s like a religion without God. They’re like the Puritans in the eighteenth century. We are sinners, and our big sin is that we like consumption and this society created by capitalism is awful. So we have to be condemned for our sin and we have to be poor. We used to have the apocalypse of Saint John, and now we have the apocalypse of Saint Greta. It’s the contrary of all our experience as human beings.
Do you think that Greta Thunberg is really so powerful and has so much influence?
Yes, because it’s normal that a young girl would want to advocate utopia and revolution and we see that the planet is in danger. We feel guilty, so we are ready to listen to that prophecy. They pretend to struggle for happiness, but they are going to destroy our welfare.
Are they like hippies?
No, it’s a new ideology. In the middle of the last century there was the idea that communism would solve the problem of inequality. At the end of the day, when you look at the situation of the working class in Sweden, it’s far better than in Russia. It’s the same with ecology. We could invest in innovation in order to struggle against climate change, and that would also nourish growth, but they do not propose the progressive way. They want to rupture the model of society.
With Claude Perdriel, proprietor of Nouvel Observateur from its foundation in 1964 to 2014.
With Jean Daniel, the founder and executive editor of Le Nouvel Observateur weekly now known as L’Obs
Lagardère S.A. is an international group with operations in over 40 countries.
Europe 1 is one of the leading radio broadcasters in France.
“In France anxiety is strong because we are not in a dynamic of progress.”
Denis Olivennes, is your new book popular with the left?
I don’t think so. I think I need a bullet proof vest. In France we have created a new category for my type of guy, which is ‘social liberal’. We like the market economy, we want the reduction of inequality, we want to struggle against climate change, but we don’t want to do it through a rupture with our society. We want to do it by a progressive way of improvements.
Is this way of thinking popular or not very popular?
It’s very uncomfortable because you are a leftist for the guy on the right and a rightist for the guy on the left. It’s a minority position. Vox clamentis in deserto!
Do you think that Macron is going to be re-elected as president?
Yes, I think so. There will be three or four candidates on the left, so they will not be able to be at the second count. There is also competition on the right. There will be at least two candidates, maybe three: Marine Le Pen, Éric Zemmour and another. So it will probably be Macron against Le Pen again; and Macron will win.
The French are not ready for extremists like Marine Le Pen?
No. If the candidate from the right was just a radical guy it would have been possible, but she came from the extreme right, with fascist origins, even if she’s not. That background is a social anxiety.
What kind of country is France today?
A country which has not accepted its new stature; a country in nostalgia for its past grandeur. A very anxious country. Anxious over immigration, anxious of Islam. This anxiety is strong because we are not in a dynamic of progress. We are in a stagnation. The less growth we have, the more anxiety. People say, well, what’s the solution? We have this immigration. We don’t know how to integrate them. The educational system doesn’t work anymore, so we can’t create. The dysfunctionality of this system creates a vicious circle. If you want to understand the anxieties of French society, you have to read Houellebecq.
Do you not think anxiety is a common disease of the Western world today?
There is a common disease, the big depression of Western countries, Western civilisation. But we have a super infection in France. We have the worst form of this disease; for example, we have a very high level of anxiolytics consumption or suicide among young people.
Is France a racist country?
No, I don’t think people are racist. I think we are even one of the least racist countries in Europe, polls show it by the way. But people feel abandoned. We have accepted strong immigration without doing what we have to do in order to integrate them. But it’s not racism; the crisis is not an ethnical crisis. It’s a social and economic crisis which has an ethnical element which creates an ethnical reaction. On top of that, we are the country in Europe which has the largest community coming from the Maghreb. In a period of radical Islamism this has a strong effect on France.
France has always been friendly with the United States, but not as friendly as other countries as it wanted a sense of independence.
The inheritance of General de Gaulle remains. He modified the French DNA. A small country maybe, but independent. Even if we have contributed to the building of the European Union and have better relations with the United States than we used to, there is still that idea of being independent. That’s why we keep our army and our nuclear weapons.
France has a strong army. Do you think that there should be a European army?
I’m strongly in favour of European integration. Probably the extension of Europe to 27 was a mistake because it stopped the movement of integration. It would have been easier if we stayed 8, 9, 10 countries; a first circle and then a second circle and then maybe a third one. I’m not confident in our ability to integrate the European countries.
The United States would like Europe to become less dependent on the U.S. umbrella because the U.S. has its own problems to solve. How does the French left wing view that?
The left has been strongly divided by the European question. There are those in favour of integration and those who are absolutely hostile. When there was the European Constitutional Treaty, Libération declared itself in favour, but it was a mess in the newsroom, because half of the people were strongly against that position. It’s still the case that the left is absolutely divided on the European question.
Thank you Denis Olivennes, author of Un Étrange Renoncement, and publisher and chairman of the daily newspaper, Libération.
Portrait of Denis Olivennes by Samuel Kirszenbaum
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