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Society

Inside Libération, the Legendary French Newspaper

Founded after the 1968 protests, Libé quickly became the voice of the anti-establishment; Abbas captured its transformation over the decades

Abbas

Abbas Serge July, Executive Editor, leads the morning conference. Seated to his right is Foreign Editor Jean-Marcel Bouguereau. Editorial offices of Liberation newspaper. Paris, France. 1983. © Abbas | Magnum Photos

Magnum photographer Abbas, who died in Paris on April 25, 2018, traveled the world documenting religions and revolution. But one week before his death, the man who described himself as a “historian of the present,” spoke to Magnum Photos about his interest in something rather different: the newspaper business.

In 1983, Abbas photographed the editorial offices of the left-wing newspaper Libération, founded a decade earlier by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He returned after 35 years, this February, to see how the place had transformed. The changes go beyond the shift from typewriter to computer—extending into the political sphere. Libération traditionally served the far-left, with a motto of “People, take the right to speak and keep it.” Since then, Libé, as it is affectionately known among its core readership, has moved closer to the political center and is broadly considered center-left today.

Abbas A journalist reads the newspaper on the stairs. Editorial offices of the newspaper Liberation. Paris, France. 1983. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Pierre Haski, journalist on the foreign desk. Editorial offices of the newspaper Liberation. Paris, France. 1983. © Abbas | Magnum Photos

Libération emerged out of the legendary May 1968 student protests and quickly became a leading anti-establishment voice. Founded by Sartre and Serge July in Paris in 1973, the paper was extraordinarily influential in its early years, despite its circulation never exceeding 200,000. Sartre and July, former members of a Maoist group, were dedicated to making Libé a publication that gave a voice to the people. In an interview at the time, Sartre said Libération wouldn’t take a party line. “Parties talk about the masses. What we want is for the masses themselves to talk.”

The newspaper initially refused to take paid advertising and was co-owned by all the staff. All employees received the same salary—minimum wage—and there was little hierarchy; important decisions were voted on. This eventually became unsustainable. In 1981, July, who had taken over as editor from Sartre in 1974, suspended publication and relaunched after a few months. Paid adverts were introduced the following year, but it retained its non-conformist atmosphere.

Abbas The morning conference. Seated, right to left, Executive Editor Laurent Joffrin, Assistant Editor Christophe Israel, Photo Editor Lionel Charrier. Liberation newspaper, Paris, France. Feb. 5, 2018. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Executive Editor Laurent Joffrin. Liberation newspaper, Paris, France. Feb. 7, 2018. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Layout Editors at work, with a cover of President Barack Obama. Liberation newspaper, Paris, France. Feb. 7, 2018. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Photo Editor Lionel Charrier (left) and archivist Alain Gerst unpack a portrait of singer and actor Marc Lavoine which was returned from an exhibition. Liberation newspaper, Paris, France. Feb. 7, (...)

“In 1983, it was post-hippie—there were lots of people with long hair. It was fun, very relaxed. You felt you were among friends,” Abbas said, speaking over the phone from his home in Paris.

Now, the offices of Libération are more formal. “When I first went into Libération this year, I saw the round conference table and it says a lot. It’s like a ministry, rather than a newspaper. It was very organized,” he said. “It’s still very much open, but it was much more business-like than it used to be.”

Abbas Editorial meeting in progress. Editorial offices of the newspaper Liberation. Paris, France. 1983. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Foreign Editor Jean-Marcel Bouguereau (left) at the telex machines. Editorial offices of the newspaper Liberation, Paris, France. 1983. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Meeting of the foreign desk. Editorial offices of the newspaper Liberation. Paris, France. 1983. © Abbas | Magnum Photos

"In 1983, it was post-hippie—there were lots of people with long hair. It was fun, very relaxed. You felt you were among friends"

- Abbas

Abbas attributed the change to the natural evolution of companies since then, but also the change in ownership—which has been controversial. In 2005, after a major fall in circulation, businessman Édouard de Rothschild took a 38.6% stake in the paper. The following year, July was forced out and many others resigned.

In recent years, Libération has had some memorable front pages, particularly after the election of President François Hollande and the Charlie Hebdo attack. In 2008, it launched a sub-brand Désintox, dedicated to fact-checking and interrogating claims by politicians. But like so many other media outlets, the move to digital posed a real challenge to Libération and readership plummeted.

Abbas Assistant Editor Alexandra Schwartzbrod and Executive Editor Laurent Joffrin. Liberation newspaper, Paris, France. Feb. 7, 2018. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Journalists at work: left Coralie Schaub (journalist), Grégoire Biseau (Assistant Executive Director). Liberation newspaper, Paris, France. Feb. 7, 2018. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Mid-morning conference. Liberation newspaper, Paris, France. Feb. 5, 2018. © Abbas | Magnum Photos

The paper has continued to struggle through financial crises. In 2014, the front page of its weekend edition didn’t show an investigation or a feature article, but a full-page denunciation of a plan by the paper’s shareholders to turn the Paris headquarters into a conference venue and cultural center. “Nous sommes un journal” (We are a newspaper), the headline read, followed by a list of everything Libé was not—not a restaurant, not a TV studio, not a startup incubator, and so on. Inside, an editorial informed readers why staff had gone on strike and said the shareholders’ plan would “reduce Libération to a mere brand.” The editor-in-chief Nicolas Demorand resigned.

Abbas Executive Editor Serge July at his desk. Editorial offices of the newspaper Liberation, Paris, France. 1983. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Photo Editor Christian Caujolle at his desk. Editorial offices of the newspaper Liberation, Paris, France. 1983. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Tag on the wall says : Danger. Hierarchic Zone. Editorial offices of the newspaper Liberation, Paris, France. 1983. © Abbas | Magnum Photos

Today, Laurent Joffrin is the editor of Libération. Abbas said the newsroom is similar today in that the employees are still relatively young, but he pointed out that the photographs show there are more women now than back then, particularly in higher positions.

In one respect though, this year’s visit was the same as in 1983: Abbas was able to go about his work as if he wasn’t there. “They ignored me, which is a good thing. They would answer my queries and be welcoming,” he said. “But they had a job to do—and so did I.”

Abbas Mural by political cartoonist Willem. Liberation newspaper, Paris, France. Feb. 5, 2018. © Abbas | Magnum Photos