[Publisher's Note] | The Leftist Line, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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The French left self-destructs

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on June 6, 2016. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

I rarely sign petitions or statements of solidarity. Readily offering one’s signature has a tendency to devalue it, whatever the declared urgency of the cause may be. And apart from that, in the heat of the moment, you run the risk of being fooled—I’m thinking about the unfortunate leftists who, without knowing it, followed the Stalinist line at the time of the Spanish Civil War.

That having been said, I didn’t hesitate on May 23, when I received an appeal to support Aude Lancelin, formerly second-in-command at the prominent French newsmagazine L’Obs. She was fired by the weekly after a political disagreement that, oddly enough, proved to be of benefit to the editor-in-chief, Matthieu Croissandeau. The petition deserves attention not only because Lancelin is a top-notch journalist of great integrity but also because her case underlines a growing crisis in the French left, as well as in the entire French press, no matter its political orientation.

To summarize what happened: According to the daily newspaper Libération, Aude Lancelin was “labeled as being on the left of the left” in her preferences for articles and interviews, which was not to the liking of Claude Perdriel, co-founder of the magazine and one of its four shareholders. Perdriel is said to have observed aloud that Lancelin was “out of compliance with the covenant she signed when she came to L’Obs” two years ago. In this “social-democratic” periodical, he declared, Lancelin “publishes anti-democratic articles.” Apparently, therefore, she deviated from a “line” that up until then had not been entirely obvious.

The authors of the petition offer an analysis: “We read…that there’s supposed to have been a conflict between Mr. Croissandeau’s so-called line, said to be the line followed by `all sectors of the left,’ and the one followed by Aude Lancelin…. Reading the said editor-in-chief’s editorials is all one need do to realize that `all sectors of the left’ are, in fact, just the sectors embodied in [President] Hollande, [Prime Minister] Valls, and [Economics Minister] Macron.”

As a matter of fact, Croissandeau’s columns generally appear favorable to the government and contemptuous toward the unions—unions that are currently engaged in mass protests against the draft legislation known as the El Khomri law—a reform that would allow, among other things, lower pay for overtime work.

That the French Socialist Party has moved more and more to the right is undeniable. That the left, such as it is, is in trouble, abandoned by now-unemployed workers and outstripped by the FN (the right-wing National Front), is likewise beyond discussion. That there’s a political crisis in France created by the split between “two irreconcilable left-wing camps,” to borrow Manuel Valls’s words, could not be more obvious. To see how far along “the left” in France is on the path to mutual slaughter, all you have to do is read the interview with left-wing presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the April 28 issue of L’Obs. Mélenchon calls Valls “a right-wing republican” and says that Macron is “a pin-up produced by the system to make the left explode from within.” As for Hollande, he has “made the word ‘left’ mean the poor lying thing that’s currently in power.”

As a journalist and the president and publisher of a magazine, I recognize in all this an important political confrontation conducted by proxy. At the same time, what troubles me even more about Aude Lancelin’s dismissal is the rise of a journalistic orthodoxy at L’Obs similar to what I see more or less everywhere in Western journalism. The caricature of Lancelin as a promoter of extreme left-wing positions has been justly ridiculed. But it’s Matthieu Croissandeau’s blandness, not his “political line,” that bothers me the most. In his writings, I hear the committee’s voice – smooth, mild, and dull. When he responded to his accusers, Croissandeau denied having a political agenda: “Mine is a managerial decision. The editorial staff wasn’t working well…”

I don’t doubt it. The managerial approach is precisely what’s killing journalism. “There’s a growing demand on the part of media outlets and news businesses for journalists trained in the realities of management,” wrote Nicolas Beytout, former director of the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro.

Aude Lancelin personifies intelligent heterodoxy in the press. For example, when she worked for the weekly newsmagazine Marianne, she encouraged the left to lift its taboo on the subject of the euro by presenting the dissenting opinions of Emmanuel Todd. Now, the euro is sacred to the Socialists. Even the arch-rebel Jean-Luc Mélenchon hesitates to advocate a French exit from Europe’s single currency for fear of insulting “the European dream” of the French elites, the same elites whom Mélenchon denounces as an oligarchy. I don’t even know whether Aude is pro- or anti-euro, but I do know that she defends freedom of expression. Yes, she’s a leftist, but she doesn’t hew to a leftist line.

If Hollande’s popularity and L’Obs’s circulation are both in decline, we shouldn’t be surprised.

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