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Liberation and Humanite

This profile considers French newspapers Libération and L'Humanité.

It covers -

  • Libération
  • Humanité
  • studies
  • chronology


Libération was founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, Serge July and associates (including members of la Gauche Prolétarienne) in 1973 Paris as a national daily to the left of Le Monde.

Its title reflected the name of several Resistance newssheets. Libération Sud was launched in July 1941 and ran for 52 issues before becoming Libération - in alignment with the Parti Communist Français (PCF) - and expiring after the withdrawal of funds when the PCF faced a financial crisis in the early 1960s. Libération Nord, first published in October 1940, reached 190 issues as an underground sheet, became Libé-soir and disappeared in the early 1950s.

Libération has famously claimed to be an heir of the May 1968 protests, even as - like several of the more prominent gauchistes - it has become a comfortable member of the French establishment

July boasted in 1998 that in the 1970s

Libération's happy medium consisted of combining counter-culture with a radical political approach, in the same way as the magazine Rolling Stone

and that it is now

a mouthpiece for democratic modernisation. In France, in 1968, there was a deep contradiction between progress in the country's economic modernisation and the struggling democratic and cultural modernisation. Today, France still lags behind with regard to its institutions and the way democracy works. Libération has an important rôle to play in these areas, but also at the cultural and social levels. In this regard, Libération is always at the forefront of all that is new, of innovation, of "what's happening". So, to a certain extent, we are the paper of change and not just political change and politicking

Libération's parent - SA Investissements Press (SAIP) - was bailed out by Pathé in 1996. As of August 2004 around 21% is held by Pathé (down from 64% in the late 1990s), 23% by staff associations (primarily its leading journalists) and 14% by a holding company whose members include "celebrities". It has a national distribution with a daily circulation of around 150,000.

In January 2005 Liberation staff agreed to let financier Edouard de Rothschild take a 37% stake in return for a €20 million cash injection.


L'Humanité was founded in 1904 by the Socialist Party leader Jean Jaurès (1859-1914).

During the 1920 split between the Socialists and the PCF control of Humanité passed to the PCF as a counterpart of Italy's L'Unita. It has remained that party's main organ of public enlightenment.

Humanité's history has had the same trajectory as the PCF. During the 1920s it was apparently funded by sales, substantial support from Moscow and donations by PCF members. Creation of the Popular Front under Leon Blum in 1934 saw an improvement in its circulation and a reduction of visceral attacks on local/external enemies such as Leon Trotsky and Andre Gide.

It was suppressed when the PCF supported the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact in 1939, reappeared once the Germans arrived in Paris (issues in 1940 urged fraternization between French workers and Wehrmach personnel) but unsurprisingly turned against the Germans following the 1941 invasion of the USSR, appearing as an underground sheet until 1944.

During the late 1940s and 1950s L'Humanité enjoyed a large circulation, reflecting both the PCF's dominance of the left and support from the USSR (including access to funds and free newsprint). As in the 1920s and 30s it was noted for its rigorous commitment to the party line, for example denouncing criticisms of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and suppression of dissent in East German and attacking Mao's China after the Sino-Soviet split.

Collapse of the USSR and ongoing erosion of the PCF's electoral base amid irrelevant policies and internicine disagreements about orthodoxy were reflected in declining circulation, now down to 48,000 from a peak of over 500,000 during the 1950s.

During 2001 the PCF sold 20% of Humanité to private investors that included Hachette and Bouygues (the engineering and telecommunications conglomerate that controls the TF1 tv channel). As of 2004 the PCF has a 40% stake; many of the remaining shares are held by staff and 'friends' of the paper.


Richard Barbrook's Media Freedom: The Contradictions of Communications in the Age of Modernity (London: Pluto Press 1995) and Marc Martin's Medias et journalistes de la Republique (Paris: Editions Odile Jacob 1997) consider the French regulatory environment and media concentration. There is a more detailed account in the five volume Histoire Générale de la Presse Française (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 1969-1976) by Claude Bellanger, Jacques Godechot, Pierre Guiral & Fernand Terrou. Raymond Kuhn's concise The Media in France (London: Routledge 1995) is also of particular value.

For Libération see the self-congratulatory and glossy Libération 1973-2003: Almanach des trente ans (Paris: Calmann-Lévy 2004) by Serge July. Perspectives are offered by Sunil Khilnani's Arguing the Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1993), Bernard-Henri Levy's Adventures on the Freedom Road: The French Intellectuals in the 20th Century (London: Harvill 1995) and Annie Cohen-Solal's Sartre: A Life (London: Heinemann 1987).

For Humanité's milieu see The French Socialist Party (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1988) and The French Communist Party in the Fifth Republic (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1994) by David Bell & Byron Criddle, Histoire du Parti communiste français (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 1995) by Stephane Courtois & Marc Lazar and The Long March of the French Left (London: Macmillan 1981) by Richard Johnson.

Soviet involvement is highlighted in Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals (New York: Free Press 1994) by Stephen Koch, the more persuasive The Red Millionaire: A Political Biography of Willy Munzenberg, Moscow's Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West, 1917-1940 (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2003) by Sean McMeekin and L'Argent de Moscou: L'histoire la plus secrete du PCF (Paris: Plon 1994) by Victor Loupan & Pierre Lorrain.


1904 Jaures founds L'Humanité

1920 PCF gains control of L'Humanité

1973 JP Sartre & Serge July found Libération

1995 establishment of Holzmann Association

1996 SA Investissements Press comes under control of Pathé

2001 Bouygues, Hachette and others buy 20% of L'Humanité

2001 Pathé reduces stake in Liberation to 21.77%

2004 Edouard de Rothschild offers €20m for 37% stake in Liberation

2005 Liberation accepts Rothschild offer