Contrary to expectations that the victory of Socialist Francois Mitterrand would lead to a purge of journalists regarded as propagandists for outgoing President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the first victim was a top editor who had endorsed Mitterrand.
Olivier Todd, the second ranking editorial executive at the prestigious weekly news magazine L'Express, was dismissed by owner-publisher James Goldsmith after editor-in-chief Jean-Francois Revel had warned him that he would resign in protest.
The Anglo-French Goldsmith said he had fired Todd over an unflattering cover of Giscard showing him as an anxious old man watching a triumphant Mitterrand on a television set. But Goldsmith made it clear in a speech to the staff that, beyond the cover picture, which was published between the two rounds of the presidential election, he wanted to turn L'Express into a fighting conservative organ to combat what he viewed as the danger of a Communist takeover of the country behind a Socialist smokescreen.
The upheaval at the magazine has prompted concerns here about the future of the country's state-owned radio and television under a Socialist government. During the campaign, however, the party pledged greater freedom for French media and more outlets for a variety of interests.
In the aftermath of the row, it was widely noted that the journalists thought to be the most threatened by a Socialist victory were still broadcasting over state facilities.
Happy Socialists celebrating on election day outside party headquarters and Mitterrand's provincial hotel nonetheless had underlined their feeling that the top TV figures were the symbols of Giscardist abuse of power. Chanting, "Make Elkabbach unemployed" and singing, "Adieu, Elkabbach, adieu," they demonstrated the depth of opposition sentiment against Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, the news director of state TV's second channel.
Lionel Jospin, Mitterrand's successor as first secretary of the Socialist Party, pledged in an interview in L'Express last week that there would be "no witch-hunting" at the state-controlled media. He even held out hope for journalists heavily identified with Giscard, saying, "There is such a thing as redemption and there is also such a thing as adaptation to reality." a
But, he added, "We do intend to reform the institution, to make it live differently. That's when the questions will be raised."
The Socialists have pledged an autonomy statute for the state media along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corp. But there are many skeptics who recall that when the Socialists controlled the airwaves, they were the most ardent defenders of the state broadcast monopoly and systematically kept. Gen. Charles de Gaulle off the air when he was the most prestigious opposition leader.
During the presidential campaign, state TV interviewers handled Mitterrand with kid gloves, but such minor candidates as Gaullist former prime minister Michel Debre got rough treatment. They were barely allowed to answer the needling questions thrown at them, whereas Giscard was treated with great deference. The obvious bias lasted down to the wire. The official campaign Supervisory Commission protested that the first TV channel broadcast in its midday news on election day shots of Giscard voting and attending mass but did not even bother to film Mitterrand casting his ballot.
Although French government control of broadcasting has been taken for granted, Giscard raised the system to a new high. He even purged Gaullists from key posts in TV and in the progovernment press. In an apparent effort to make sure that publishers would be loyal, diversified groups with business interests involving government contracts were heavily favored. There also were frequent instances of open interference in the media by government spokesmen.
Although the Socialists obviously want to avoid the kind of anarchy that prevails over the unregulated Italian airwaves, their own actions commit them to allowing freer broadcasting. Mitterrand himself was one of the prominent Socialist defendants in a case the Giscard government brought after police banged down the door of Socialist headquarters to get at a pirate transmitter set up to challenge exclusive official control of broadcasting. The Socialists have said they will license "free radios" run by municipalities, labor unions and groups of journalists in a system modeled on the U.S. Federal Communications Comission. After Mitterrand won, a new station called Radio Future City, one-third owned by the independent newspaper, Le Monde, began broadcasting in Paris.
L'Express was a rare example of a magazine that, while basically progovernment, allowed a diversity of views. Under the Revel-Todd team, it maintained its prestige, its reputation for professionalism and it was generally felt that, after a long period in the doldrums, there had been in the past year a new excitement to its columns.
Along with senior commentator Raymond Aron, Revel and Todd seemed to guarantee a continued independence that was denied to Goldsmith's short-lived British newsweekly, Now. It closed down two weeks ago after a spotty record that included a Goldsmith ban on sending to France an issue with an article mildly critical of Giscard.
Todd admits that the artist who did the L'Express cover was heavyhanded, but he insists that the cover idea was merely an accurate reflection of the political situation at the time. Todd, also Anglo-French and the author of several respected volumes including the most thorough biography of Giscard before he became president, insists that the real problem was Goldsmith's statements to him and Revel that his friends in Giscard's government were turning their backs on him over the magazine's independence.
Asked about that, Goldsmith merely laughed, said he was not subject to pressure and changed the subject. He said that Mitterrand's victory posed the question of the "continuation of a free society." He said he would "clap with both hands" if Mitterrand turned out to be a social democrat but that he doubted it. L'Express, he said, would be "the last free paper in France" after all the others succumb to pressure once the banks that hold their loans are nationalized by the Socialists.
Contesting the view generally held even by fence-sitters at L'Express that Goldsmith has already seriously compromised his magazine's reputation, the publisher said that he has a long list of applicants from journalists of "the highest possible caliber" to join the staff.
Estimates of the number of journalists who want to quit L'Express range from 15 to 40 out of 300 editorial employes, but they include most of the leading staffers, except for Aron, the 76-year-old "French Walter Lippmann." He was in the hospital for minor surgery when the row erupted, and many staffers indicated they were waiting to follow his lead.
Goldsmith bought the magazine in 1978 from Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, who founded it in 1953. It was converted into a newsweekly in 1964 and maintained its influential standing thanks to its variety of columnists and its respected cultural pages.