It is September 1915 in France; almost a year has passed since humans have discovered their ability to wage world wars, killing thousands using easier, faster and more gruesome means. A year has passed, during which life in France as we know it has become troubled, stifled and has almost stopped. All signs of joy and fun have been halted by orders from the state, driven by worry or stagnation. Empty propaganda has monopolized speech, and truth has, as is always the case, fallen as the war’s first casualty. Censorship in France during the First World War is imprudent and at a record high, to the extent that the state has banned newspaper hawkers from calling out the papers in the streets, giving the excuse that they might cause citizens to worry.
Maurice Maréchal is a young journalist who opposed the war. Maréchal and his wife, Jeanne, spend their savings on establishing a paper that broke this terrible deadlock, along with the traditional rules of journalism. They establish a satirical weekly newspaper with a very small editorial team. Jeanne will act as both secretary and papergirl, distributing the paper on her bike. And for 100 years, this paper will be the most important and popular weekly newspaper in France, and an example for independent journalism.
In 2015, journalism in France has become quite tame: investigative features are almost absent, and you rarely ever read any serious critique of governments or politicians.
Over the decades, journalists and politicians have forged quite a close relationship. Newspapers have become ideologically affiliated with specific political parties, which has got in the way of criticism and in-depth investigations. This has created a situation where journalism in France has fallen under the grip of the state, even if it does not own the newspapers.
This has also left readers uninterested in French papers, especially compared to the volume of readership in neighboring countries like Germany or Britain. Interestingly, the best-selling daily newspaper in France today is not Le Monde or Le Figaro, but Ouest-France, a provincial daily based in Rennes (the capital of the region of Brittany). The overall decline of newspaper readership in France has created a financial crisis in the printed newspaper industry, made worse by the rise of the Internet. The crisis has hit major French newspapers hard so that they were consequently sold to big businessmen close to power. Even the French daily, Libération, which was established by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1970s in the wake of the protest movements, ended up being sold to Edouard de Rothschild, from the highly wealthy Rothschild family, who acquired a commanding share of 37 percent of the paper’s capital interest in 2005.
One newspaper remains unaffected by the changing tides. It has cost the same for the past 30 years, its 100-year-old design has not changed, it has a fixed eight-page layout printed in only two colors — red and black, it includes text and caricatures only and no photos, it has absolutely no presence on the Internet, it does not spend a dime on marketing, it has not included a single ad ever, it is owned by its small staff, which are the highest paid in France, excluding the chief editor, it is the country’s most stable and often best-selling paper (by around half a million copies or so).
This is a satirical investigative weekly paper feared by every French politician. We are told that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used to read it to learn what is happening in France, and advised German Chancellor Angela Merkel to do the same. Its founder, Maurice Maréchal, named it “Le Canard Enchaîné” (The Chained-Up Duck).
The Canard has so much to tell us in general, but also to Egyptian journalism in particular, as well.
“Before Wikileaks there was ‘Le Canard Enchaîné,’ and after Wikileaks, there will be ‘Le Canard Enchaîné’ — a British reader.
In his first speech of the First World War, French President Raymond Poincaré coined the term, “Sacred Union,” as an expression of the unification of all the French people to defend their country. The majority of opposition groups announced their alliance with this sacred union, supporting the government and the French military — to the extent that leftist forces decided to halt all calls for strikes given the circumstances.
Meanwhile, the religious undertones of Poincaré’s “sacred” union attracted religious citizens who were still bitter about the separation of the church and the state a decade earlier. Accordingly, the support for the government, the consolidation of the political elite and unity of the French citizens defined patriotism — in addition to the adoption of rhetoric glorifying war, selfless sacrifice and death for the sake of France. The press was not allowed to digress from this rhetoric, a restrain it willingly embraced, often volunteering extra bombast.
In 1870, the German army was able to learn about the whereabouts of French army stations from the French press. This incident was used to justify the censorship imposed on the press, not only with regards to publishing information on the military institution, but also included anything that exposed the miseries of the war and the suffering of the soldiers. The main reason behind the censorship was to stop any political criticism or exposure of politicians, using the excuse that this was meant to protect the Home Front, and prevent the tarnishing of the nation’s symbols at a critical time.
The press was accordingly solely preoccupied with spreading propaganda, lies and brain-washing the masses. This created a safe haven for politicians.
Only a minority could distinguish between their position vis-à-vis France and its soldiers, on one hand, and the government and war, on the other. And for the rest of population that joined the sacred union, that group was considered to be defeatist, not credible, their patriotism suspect. Officials generally leaned towards the closure of newspapers and reprimanding of journalists rather than going through the hassle of reading and censoring everything before publication. In an age when the printing process was complicated, tedious, and hard to modify, it still remained quite common for papers to come out of the press with blank pages, in the place of censored articles. In time, France had 400 central censors and 5,000 local ones, with conflicting positions. And due to the flood of censorship orders, it was quite difficult to overlook their enforcement, which gave room for some newspapers to ignore some of them.
By the end of 1914, the censors banned “L’Homme Libre” (The Free Man), founded by Georges Clemenceau — a journalist and former prime minister of France. When it was eventually re-issued, Clemenceau changed its name to “L’Homme Enchaîné” (The Chained-Up Man), which would later inspire Maréchal’s “Le Canard Enchaîné.”
Le Canard means duck, but is also French slang for newspaper or rumor. The name’s double-entendre would remain a trademark of the newspaper throughout its history, and a tool of sarcasm to evade reprimand and mock the censors. In the opening editorial of its first issue, “Le Canard” promised its readers false and useless news because readers, it claimed, have gotten bored of real economic and political stories. This was the paper’s way of being sarcastic, claiming that, once published, news and official statements are a worthless misrepresentation. Despite its claim, “Le Canard” was banned after publishing just five issues, following pressures by the censors.
The closure did not last for long though, and it soon resumed its work in the summer of 1916 with a bigger more resilient team and spirit. Its comeback caricature depicted a duck facing the scissors — of the censors — with the duck quacking, “You can unfeather me, but you won’t remove my skin.” The writers were sending a clear message to the censors: “You can take away our pens, but you won’t defeat us.” In the following years, “Le Canard” would wage its own war against the censors, aided by French soldiers.
Trench newspapers stood with “Le Canard” against censorship and war propaganda. Trench newspapers were journals produced by soldiers expressing the miseries and pain of war. Their depiction of war stood in contrast to the romanticized rhetoric produced by officials and newspapers, which revolved around heroism and sacrifice.
It was difficult for the censors to sanction such journals produced by soldiers facing death on the war’s front-lines. Trench journals reached French society, and “Le Canard” reached the trenches, becoming the most-read newspaper by the soldiers. This subjected “Le Canard” to even harsher censorship, and as a result some of its pages were published blank.
Nevertheless, sarcasm and wittiness helped it to continue to relay its ideas. “Le Canard” was sometimes able to trick the censors, by sending its censored articles to be published in other daily newspapers without them noticing. According to “Le Canard,” the censor read all daily newspapers in a total of two hours, while they would spend four hours reading “Le Canard.”
The First World War ended with France’s victory, and by then the paper’s circulation had reached 100,000 copies. In celebration of the war, the censors changed its name to “Le Canard De-Enchaîné” (The Liberated Duck/Paper), which lasted for just a brief few months. The paper continued to practice its special sarcasm and independence in the inter-war period — albeit while suffering from occasional financial troubles.
In 1924, “Le Canard” announced to its readers that it might have to accept ads, but retracted from this decision only two months later. It continued to expose political and financial corruption, until it stopped publishing when the German Third Reich entered Paris in 1940.
This is the first in a two-part series of articles. Read Part 2 here.