The 100-year-old chained-up duck (Part 2)

One day, Pierre Brossolette, a French resistance figure, pointed to a poster of the movie Gone with the Wind and said: “The war will be over when the French people are able to watch this great film and read Le Canard Enchaîné.”

In fact, by the time France was “liberated” in 1944, the independent satirical weekly newspaper Le Canard made a comeback with a record sale of 500,000 issues following its closure when the German Third Reich entered Paris in 1940. Sadly, Le Canard’s anti-war founder Maurice Maréchal, who died in 1942, did not witness this outstanding comeback.

Fulfilling his wish, Maurice’s wife and partner Jeanne established two companies. One is called Le Canard Enchaîné, while the other manages and publishes the newspaper and is owned by its employees. This, however, comes with a number of restrictions to ensure that the newspaper remains independent. To maintain ownership, staff are not entitled to pass on their shares as inheritance, or keep them if they leave the paper. Staff are also not allowed to simultaneously work for any other newspaper, or buy shares in any other companies or in the stock market. They are also prohibited from accepting any prizes or gifts from any entity. In return, the employees get a share of the revenues and enjoy relatively high salaries. The rest of the revenues are reserved to ensure the independence and continuity of the newspaper. This system of ownership still exists to this day.

The 1950s marked a turning point for Le Canard. As an anti-war outlet, the newspaper stood behind the independence of Algeria, exposing the crimes committed by the French state. It republished previously banned articles on the topic, such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous piece on torture in Algeria, a position that has put the newspaper in conflict with the state. And in defiance, the newspaper has published leaked information on the government’s misconduct in Algeria and other issues, in addition to being a pioneer in investigative journalism, even before the term was coined. Le Canard has thus become more than a nuisance for politicians — it has become a weekly threat that blusters every Wednesday. Le Canard held onto satire as its main tool, playing around with words and successfully deploying metaphors to protect itself. More than one official has made statements on how Le Canard is not subject to the same scrutiny as other newspapers because the censors do not want to look stupid.

Caricature of French leaders reading Le Canard

Caricature of French leaders reading Le Canard

“So long as the Canard goes on, you can be sure there’s nothing really much wrong with France,” a French reader told the Associated Press in the early 1960s. At that time, Charles de Gaulle was president. We are told that he used to ask, “What did the bird say?” every Wednesday morning, in reference to Le Canard. The newspaper supported his policies on the liberation of Algeria, but was critical of his authoritarianism vis-à-vis state institutions. It dedicated a permanent segment to him entitled “La Cour” (the court), where he was sketched as a king.

When Georges Pompidou took office after de Gaulle, the first piece of advice he gave to his staff was not to do something that Le Canard would write about — advice which they did not follow. Le Canard scrutinized Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas’ tax documents, exposing his four years of tax evasion utilizing a legal loophole. This scandal led to his expulsion from office. During Pompidou’s presidency, security personnel disguised as plumbers were caught trying to bug Le Canard’s office to identify the newspaper’s sources. Security officials denied this incident, but Le Canard drew upon its resources to expose the names of the officers responsible for the incident. In the midst of this scandal, Pompidou passed away and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was elected to succeed him.

In his first months in office, Le Canard took issue with Giscard d’Estaing’s nightlife. “We had a president who worked so little because of his ill health [referring to Pompidou], but now we have another who works so little because of too much health,” Le Canard stated. The relationship between Le Canard and Giscard d’Estaing’s cabinet was tense, to the extent that he blamed the newspaper for the suicide of one of his ministers. Toward the end of his first term and as elections were approaching, Le Canard claimed that Giscard d’Estaing received diamonds as gifts from the Central African Republic dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa when the former was finance minister in 1973. Giscard d’Estaing did not deny receiving gifts, but said they were small diamonds for ornamentation and that he had donated them to charity. Le Canard proved he was lying and cost Giscard d’Estaing his re-election. He lost to François Mitterrand.

Le Canard was accused of timing the exposure of this scandal to serve Mitterrand’s victory. The newspaper was generally accused of being too soft on Mitterrand and his government because he belonged to the French left. Many editors left Le Canard in protest of this bias. But by the end of Mitterrand’s presidency, Le Canard regained its ferociousness and was blamed for the suicide of yet another minister. Nevertheless, Le Canard refused to expose information regarding Mitterrand’s illegitimate daughter, out of its belief that officials’ private lives are off-limits as long as it does not affect their jobs. This is a line acceptable to French society. During Mitterrand’s presidency, Le Canard also exposed a corruption story implicating Jacques Chirac in his capacity as mayor of Paris. This did not, however, stop the French electorate from voting him into office twice.

While many newspapers struggled during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, Le Canard’s circulation flourished. Readers followed fictional memoirs of a French president’s wife, which projected onto Carla Bruni’s life. They also followed Le Canard as it scrutinized officials. In 2010 alone, Le Canard’s investigative pieces were responsible for the exclusion of six officials, taking its circulation up to half a million copies. The newspaper had enough revenue to cover its operations for three years without selling a single issue. Le Canard publishes its finances once annually, without any legal obligation to do so. Its circulation dropped again, however, once the left reached power with the election of François Hollande. The newspaper stated that this drop was expected and had also happened during Mitterrand’s presidency, explaining that the newspaper’s left-leaning readership does not like to read critiques of leftist governments.

Le Canard does not define itself as either a right-wing or a leftist newspaper. It only states that it is an independent outlet that does not shy away from holding anyone accountable, regardless of their affiliation. The major positions that Le Canard adopts are against war and the domination of religious figures. Nevertheless, engaging in religious criticism is not something that the newspaper cares so much about. Like Charlie Hebdo, tackling religion at Le Canard does not go beyond sarcasm. It has, however, received serious threats following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, an issue that warranted investigation.

Le Vrai Canard (The Real Duck) is the title of a book published in 2008 that claims to trace the changes in Le Canard’s objectivity and credibility from Mitterrand to Sarkozy’s presidencies. The authors accuse Le Canard of publishing false investigative pieces that were not verified. They claim that Le Canard was lenient toward Mitterrand because members of its staff were close to him. The authors also claim that Le Canard journalists close to Sarkozy facilitated the publishing of specific dialogues leaked by the former president in the “Memoirs of Carla B” to disseminate a specific message to the readers. The authors finally claim that Le Canard’s history of independence has shielded it from any criticism.

Le Canard, however, always emphasizes the credibility of its sources. The case for its credibility is evident by the fact that most of the scandals, leaks and accusations it publishes turn out to be true. Le Canard depends on thousands of whistleblowers who leak information related to corruption and official misconduct. It has become the first destination for any French citizen with information on cases of corruption. This is in addition to being the only destination for journalists whose stories are turned down by other publications for reasons that have to do with interests and affiliations. After all, Le Canard takes great care in protecting its sources and their anonymity. We are told that one of Le Canard’s journalists has to dispose of her phone’s SIM card after each phone call with any of her sources. Some of those sources are high-ranking government employees at the Élysée Palace and the French cabinet. This is why for officials Le Canard has become a vessel that can pour their scandals and even their chit chats into the open. In surrender, they make sure to receive a copy of the newspaper Tuesday evening to be prepared for any Wednesday morning scandal.

On the internet, Le Canard has a website and a Twitter account that offer almost nothing but the weekly’s front pages. The main purpose behind this meager internet presence is to have a verified spot on the web so as to prevent identity theft. The site’s homepage spells out its belief in informing and entertaining its readers through paper and ink, which is in fact a quite successful marketing tactic. This belief in ink and paper is also reflected in Le Canard’s office space. You will find only a few electronic devices, and around half the journalists write their stories on paper to this day. Its headquarters, as described by one of its staff members, is “like a shooting set of an old crime drama.” While the setting seems surreal, Le Canard is in fact one of the most authentic newspapers in France.

***

In 2015, Egypt has journalists but no journalism. Media outlets are either affiliated with the state or owned by pro-government business tycoons. Even some of the oppositional news outlets do not exist to tell the truth. Individual efforts to produce good journalism in these news outlets barely leave any mark. But all this dwindles if we look at the journalists who die reporting or are imprisoned, while newspapers are confiscated and banned from publishing. This is in addition to laws criminalizing anyone who dares question the state.

Le Canard Enchaîné is a very French newspaper, only concerned with French affairs. It does not care about us and has nothing to tell us. Its motto, however, which it repeats and insists on, is for all the journalists in the world, and probably for every person alive. It might have been worth considering as a post-revolution dictum, but for us today it is a clichéd ending of a tragic Arabic movie: “You cannot take away the freedom of the press, unless it is not put to use.”

This is the second article in a two-part series. You can read part one here.

AD
 
 
Abdel Latif al-Tahan