Rare Bird

The satirical weekly that leads journalism in France

The headline of Le Canard’s 1 February issue referred to an explosive corruption story that the publication had broken the previous week about the presidential candidate François Fillon. christophe archambault / afp / getty images
01 May, 2017

On 1 February, Le Canard Enchaîné, a weekly satirical newspaper in France, ran a characteristically tongue-in-cheek front-page headline: “I Keep Telling You That Penelope Hasn’t Done Anything!”

The headline was a fictional quote from François Fillon, a former prime minister of France, and at the time, a prominent presidential candidate in the country’s upcoming general election. (In late April, Fillon lost in the first round of the election.) Le Canard’s headline was alluding to an explosive story that had broken the previous week revealing that Fillon’s wife, Penelope, had been officially employed—and handsomely paid—as her husband’s parliamentary assistant for years, despite never doing any such work. This scandal, which later widened in scope to similarly phony positions for Fillon’s children, tarnished the candidate’s carefully crafted image of a righteous family man.

What may surprise those unfamiliar with French media is that, despite the newspaper’s satirical bent, it was Le Canard that broke the scandal. Le Canard Enchaîné—which directly translates to “the chained duck,” but is also a play on “canard,” slang for “newspaper”—publishes satire, humour and cartoons alongside hard-hitting reportage. The weekly often runs investigative stories that other outlets, including high-profile dailies, have missed. Le Canard also does not publish ads, has a sparse online presence, and is collectively owned by its staff members—characteristics that distinguish it from virtually all other French media outlets, making it an unlikely leader of the pack.

Founded in 1916, Le Canard has broken several scandals that have taken down prominent politicians. For example, in 1979, the newspaper revealed that France’s president, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, had received a set of diamonds from the head of state of the Central African Republic. The story stuck to d’Estaing all the way to the 1981 general election, which he lost. In 2005, Le Canard printed allegations that Finance Minister Hervé Gaymard had rented an apartment for his family on public money, despite having already been provided one by his ministry. He resigned less than two weeks after the story broke. In 2011, Foreign Affairs Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie stepped down after Le Canard revealed she used a private jet belonging to a close friend of the Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to holiday in the country, while the Arab Spring was in full swing.

On 11 February, I spoke over the phone with Hervé Liffran, one of Le Canard’s senior journalists. The publication, which has a subscriber base of 70,000 and a typical circulation of around 400,000, was still riding high on the Fillon scoop. “We printed 100,000 extra copies for our February 1 issue, and everything was gone by Wednesday morning,” Liffran said. He added that for the issue after that, “we sold 500,000 copies, and we could have sold many more.”

Le Canard’s journalists investigated deeper after that, unearthing other scandals that weakened Fillon’s candidacy. In March, the weekly revealed that he had received an undeclared, interest-free loan of Eur 50,000 from Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, a billionaire businessman. Lacharrière is also the owner of a literary and cultural-affairs magazine, where Penelope Fillon was employed for over a year with a monthly salary of Eur 5,000—but to which she had barely contributed a couple of articles. Two weeks later, Le Canard reported that, in 2015, while prime minister, Fillon arranged a meeting between a Lebanese businessman and the Russian president Vladimir Putin for the price of $50,000.

The weekly comes out every Wednesday, but its subscribers also have the option of picking it up on Tuesday nights from the magazine headquarters, an elegant, high-ceilinged building a stone’s throw away from the Louvre museum in central Paris. Liffran said that many of those who do this are emissaries of politicians who want to stay a step ahead of the media cycle.

The fact that Le Canard contains no advertisements, and that it is not owned by any individual or private entity, ensures that it is far more independent than most publications in France. Liffran explained to me that the paper’s employees are given shares, but that these are “demonetised,” meaning that they have only decision-making value, not monetary value. “I was given shares after I joined the newspaper full-time, but will have to give them back when I leave,” he said. At Le Canard, Liffran told me, “There is no distribution of profit, everything is put back in our reserve. All our revenue comes from subscription and newspaper sales, and we don’t have the benefit of any subsidies.”

Given this setup, Le Canard’s financial success is perhaps even more impressive. It boasts a reserve of Eur 100 million and, in 2016, netted a profit of Eur 2 million. Moreover, the newspaper’s retail price of Eur 1.20 has not changed since 1993.

Le Canard has not been immune to criticism. In 2008, two journalists published a book entitled Le Vrai Canard—The Real Canard—in which they accuse the publication of being too close to particular politicians, and of providing a platform for the cloak-and-dagger games of the political class. The newspaper’s response was cutting. Along with a two-page editorial defending its practices, it printed a letter of application that one of the two authors had sent years earlier, in an unsuccessful bid to join the ranks of the weekly.

“There is a fear that Le Canard becomes a kind of ‘fight club’ of politics, that politicians will use it to settle their scores with each other,” Pierre Monégier, an investigative television journalist, told me on the phone on 10 February, two weeks after Le Canard broke the Fillon scandal. “But this is unfounded. On the contrary, its journalists tend to be wary of those that try to manipulate them.”

A few days later, I contacted Louis-Marie Horeau, the editor-in-chief of Le Canard. Speaking with a calm, dry humour, Horeau brushed aside a recurring accusation that the paper publishes the results of investigations piecemeal over several weeks, in order to boost sales. “This idea that we are distilling information bit by bit is simply false,” he said. “It’s impossible to do that given the strength of the competition.”

Although much of this competition comes from the web, Le Canard has resisted the push towards boosting its online presence. The publication’s website, which was created in 2012, only releases headlines, encouraging readers to buy print copies.

The internet does, however, affect Le Canard’s business. Nicolas Brimo, the paper’s managing director, told me that earlier, “A big scandal could have a shelf life of four or five issues.” Now, he said, “we can make record sales on the first issue,” but after that, the competition from digital outlets makes it difficult for subsequent issues to sell as well as they would have in earlier years.

The weekly’s closest competitor is Mediapart, an online investigative media platform. Mediapart, however, adopts a much more serious tone than Le Canard—even an accusatory one, according to Horeau. “Our stance is to laugh at things, while they tend to take on the role of a prosecutor,” he said. “We don’t have any ambition to have an immediate impact on events. We just want to give useful, interesting and amusing information.”

Recently, the two publications have been united by more sinister events. In early April, employees of both Le Canard and Mediapart—which also came out with its own damaging revelations against Fillon during the campaign—received death threats in the form of letters. The missives, each of which contained a bullet and a picture of a coffin, were signed by a group that called itself the “Collective for purification 2J.” (Some media reports have interpreted “2J” as a threat to journalists and judges, because some judges have also received similar letters.) According to Liffran, these threats are “symptomatic of a worldwide hostile sentiment towards the press, not just in France.”

But it was Fillon’s response to such threats that Liffran found especially notable. That very week, after some reporters were assaulted at one of Fillon’s rallies, the politician “said in a television interview that he condemned the violence against journalists … but that they should also ask themselves about the reason behind this violence,” Liffran recounted. “So he’s basically justifying it, which is perplexing.”

Le Canard, however, has a history of responding to attacks and threats with irreverence. In 1973, government agents disguised as plumbers were caught trying to bug the publication’s headquarters. Today, a hole in the wall that the agents made in their failed attempt has remained unfilled. A plaque hangs above the hole, reading, “A gift from Marcellin, Interior Minister 1968-1974.”