Far from the mainland, a French newspaper faces liquidation

Update: On Thursday morning, France-Antilles was officially liquidated by a tribunal in Martinique. Prior to the decision, the papers in Guadeloupe and Martinique, fearing the worst, ran front page headlines that read, “The last pages of France-Antilles.” According to staffers, the three overseas territories served by France-Antilles will become the first regions of France not to have a daily newspaper.

 

THREE FRENCH TERRITORIES situated some 4,000 miles from the country’s mainland are about to lose their daily newspapers. France-Antilles—a trio of publications serving the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, in the Caribbean Sea, as well as French Guiana, which sits on the South American continent, just north of Brazil—is facing liquidation. Even if it survives, its staff and daily schedule will be pared back. “The uncertainty is weighing very heavily on the atmosphere at the paper,” Emmanuelle Lerondeau, web editor for the Guadeloupe edition of France-Antilles, says. “It’s very sad, very morose.” 

France-Antilles was founded as a daily in 1964, and published its first issue that year, with the support of the French state, to coincide with then-President Charles de Gaulle’s visit to Martinique. In more recent times, it has experienced steep financial difficulties, racking up monthly losses totaling roughly $500,000. “It isn’t tenable anymore,” Lerondeau says.

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Some of its travails—declining ad revenue, declining circulation, low rates of online subscriptions—will look familiar to local papers the world over. But distance—from France, and between the papers themselves—hasn’t helped matters, staffers say. The paper they print on, for instance, is shipped from France, and its cost has risen in recent years. In the autumn, Frédéric Verbrugghe, France-Antilles’s director general, called the papers “structurally deficit-making,” thanks, in part, to quirks of the territories’ demography and geography. (Verbrugghe did not respond to CJR’s requests for comment.)

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In June, the papers’ woes intensified as the French legal system took an interest in their financial plight. Today, a tribunal will rule on their future. Aude Jacques-Ruettard—France-Antilles’s only current shareholder who, backed by local investors, has mounted a bid to save the papers—had until earlier this week to convince officials that her offer was financially viable. (Jacques-Ruettard is the granddaughter of Robert Hersant, a French media magnate who used to own France-Antilles, as well as Le Figaro and other titles. CJR was unable to reach her for comment, but will update this story should that change.)

The French state agreed to support the rescue bid by matching private contributions. However, the last staffers heard, a further $1.4 million was still needed for the deal to be sealed. At time of writing, the staffers didn’t know if the deadline had been met.

If I want to preserve my family life, I have to stay here in Guadeloupe. And I already know that it’s going to be very difficult to preserve my journalism career here…

If the tribunal moves to shut the papers down, at least 200 people will lose their jobs. (France-Antilles has around 240 staffers split across its titles. According to Bernard Dordonne, who works for the smallest of the papers, in French Guiana, some of his colleagues may be spared by an alternative, local takeover bid, should the group as a whole be liquidated.)

Even if Jacques-Ruettard’s plan is accepted, the papers’ combined payroll would be cut nearly in half. In terms of raw numbers, those layoffs would be more significant than they sound, says Rodolphe Lamy, a journalist with the Martinique edition who also serves as a staff representative. “It’s the equivalent of 1,000 jobs being lost in mainland France, relative to the population. It’s huge for a territory like ours,” he says. “We’re trying to fight as best we can, but we know… we don’t have the keys to the future.”

Alternative media work is not readily available in the three territories. And while French national newspapers and magazines accept occasional freelance dispatches from the country’s overseas regions, such work doesn’t pay as well as a steady newspaper gig. Those in search of full-time journalism jobs may need to move thousands of miles away in order to find one.

“I’m in quite a delicate situation,” Lerondeau says. “If I want to preserve my family life, I have to stay here in Guadeloupe. And I already know that it’s going to be very difficult to preserve my journalism career here, unless I work freelance.”

Dozens of non-editorial staffers, meanwhile, will find themselves adrift in regions with high unemployment rates, compared to the French average. In particular, youth unemployment in all three territories hovers around or above 50 percent.

Jacques-Ruettard’s plan to save France-Antilles doesn’t just involve layoffs. If it’s accepted, the papers will aim to bring in more revenue from events, audio production, and, in particular, a pivot to digital. The papers in Guadeloupe and Martinique would print only three days per week; the French Guiana edition would become online only. Printing would be centralized in Guadeloupe, meaning some copies would have to be shipped overseas. That could pose problems. “If there’s a cyclone, there’s no boat,” Lerondeau says. “Sometimes there isn’t even a plane.”

Staffers at the Guadeloupe edition, in particular, have expressed reservations about the plan. “We don’t know what resources will be allocated to us to build this new economic model,” Lerondeau says. Managers “haven’t done market analysis, they haven’t calculated anything, and… so it’s a gamble on the future—a gamble we’re not sure we can pull off.” Lerondeau worries that cutting back on print would alienate older readers, in particular. In French Guiana, that problem would be particularly acute; internet coverage there is patchy, Dordonne says.

Journalists at France-Antilles told me that readers in their part of the world rely on the papers to provide accurate information. Martinique is a small community, and fake news can spread like wildfire. According to Lamy, residents are heavy users of WhatsApp, a prolific vector of junk information. And those who come from the territories served by France-Antilles, Lamy says, risk losing an important link to their homes.

Already, France’s overseas regions—scattered vestiges of the country’s imperial height—can feel isolated from the metropole. Losing France-Antilles would only exacerbate that distance. “What’s happening to us is symptomatic of what’s happening to papers in mainland France,” Lerondeau says. “But we have a bigger problem: insularity.” The territories, she says, are “not really considered to be French. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.