Since the terror attack at its offices in January 2015, Charlie Hebdo has become the flagship name of French satirical press. But in France, Le Canard Enchaîné, its main rival, has been around for much longer—and reaches more readers. The paper’s name is a puzzle for the uninitiated, combining a reference to George Clemenceau’s turn-of-the-century newspaper, The Chained Man, with a slang double entendre. In French, canard means both “duck” and “newspaper.” The Chained Paper (or The Chained Duck) celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year.
Daniel Hoffman interviewed Laurent Martin, a historian and professor of history at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and visiting professor at NYU’s Institute of French Studies. Martin, who specializes in the history of media and cultural policies, published Le Canard enchaîné ou les fortunes de la vertu, histoire d’un journal satirique 1915-2000 (Le Canard enchaîné, or the Fortunes of Virtue) in 2001.
How would you define Le Canard Enchaîné?
It is a satirical newspaper, published every Wednesday, which resorts to humor, but is also very critical and uses antiphrasis and irony. This is obviously linked to the context of its birth in 1915: irony was the only way to fight censorship and convey ideas without expressing them too explicitly. Le Canard was actually founded as a reaction to the warmongering spirit reigning in France before World War I, especially with the “Sacred Union.” It was not a pacifist newspaper, but it tried to establish a critical distance with the collective hysteria at the time.
The two founders – Maurice Maréchal, an journalist, and Gassier, a caricaturist – were socialists and close to internationalist ideas. Because they didn’t have a lot of financial means at the beginning, they had to stop the publication and launch a new version one year later. It was a success: in the interwar years, the newspaper reached a circulation of 275,000 copies. Le Canard gained prominence as an anticlerical and antimilitarist newspaper.
It was also very critical of capitalism and of the Third Republic regime, denouncing corruption in politics and the media. To preserve its own independence, Le Canard has always refused to include ads, sign up for a loan or have an external shareholder. Another defining feature is the longevity of its teams and the importance of tradition: in 100 years of existence, there have been only five different editors-in-chief.
How has the newspaper changed over the years?
Le Canard has remained very traditional both in its layout and in its struggles against the death penalty, nuclear weapons and for abortion rights. It is very progressive regarding morals and very traditional in its ideological commitments. It has never supported any politician with the exception of Pierre Mendès-France who stayed in power only [eight] months in the mid 1950s.
Until the late 1970s, it was clearly a left-wing newspaper. Things started to change when the left took office for a long period with François Mitterrand. Le Canard could not afford to be a left-wing newspaper and an opposition newspaper at the same time. There was a kind of political neutralization that happened then. Le Canard has remained committed to its original struggles, but I would say that it’s more a folkloric feature than a concrete reality now.
Le Canard’s online presence is limited to a minimalist website where only the front page of the latest edition is displayed. Considering the crisis of print media, how do you explain Le Canard’s ongoing success?
Readers are faithful precisely because Le Canard has resisted trends and has remained authentic. The problem is that their readership grows older. Even if the financial situation is thriving, mainly thanks to the newspaper’s cash reserves, circulation and sales numbers are concerning. Since the 1980s, sales have fluctuated according to the political context. With the presidential campaign that starts now, sales should go up. But after the election, there should be a sharp decrease.
When comparing these numbers with those of the 1980s or the 1900s, it appears clearly that recent years have not been good. The main explanation is that Le Canard has not embraced the digital revolution. Historically, it has always been late for technological evolutions. Hopefully, the editors will realize that they need to engage younger readers who don’t go to the kiosk and read on their tablets, their phone or their computer. For the moment, it’s not seen as an emergency. But in my opinion, Le Canard needs to invent an online model and make their archives and cartoons available.
How does Le Canard hire its reporters?
The newspaper recruits journalists with a lot of experience and a large number of contacts. Editors identify these people and they put them on a trial period, especially if they work for an endangered news outlet. Then, they see if it works or not. One needs to have a certain state of mind to stay at Le Canard. It’s not only a question of talent. There’s a kind of contradiction: you need to be independent and libertarian, have a strong personality, but you also need to fit a journalistic mold and accept that your articles will be systematically rewritten. Many journalists do not agree with that. Many have tried, but few have stayed.
What are the main differences between Le Canard Enchaîné and Charlie Hebdo?
Charlie is the heir of a more recent tradition, which dates back from the 1960s with the magazine Hara-Kiri, created by Professeur Choron, Cavanna and a few others. They were libertarians or anarchists with a strong political commitment. Their main goal was to be irreverent towards any power and use all possible means to demonstrate this irreverence, including trash humor. The caricaturist Cabu [who worked for both Le Canard Enchaîné and Charlie Hebdo and was murdered in the January 2015 terror attack] said in a radio interview that Le Canard had taboos that Charlie didn’t have: they were “death, disease and sex.”
There is a borderless aspect at Charlie, which also explains its smaller readership. Before the 2015 shooting, very few people read Charlie: it’s a crude humor, which can resort to scatology. Le Canard has always been more moderate. It uses irony but not sarcasm. Those are two different styles. Another difference is that Charlie doesn’t produce investigations. It reacts to news that everyone already knows unlike Le Canard, which has informants in every circle, including the military and the police.
Why isn’t there any equivalent of Le Canard abroad?
Le Canard is a political and satirical newspaper, which also does investigations. Very few newspapers in the world have the ability to gather all those criteria at the same time, mainly because of their financial capacities. Also, Le Canard is a “site of memory”: it is part of an ideological and satirical tradition that dates back from the 19th century. It is a composite newspaper with puns, wordplays, cartoons, but also political echoes, cultural pages and exclusive investigations. All of these ingredients make it a unique object.