French unions take on the free press.

French unions take on the free press.

French unions take on the free press.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Feb. 20 2002 11:13 AM

Fear of a Free Press

When a Swedish company tried to launch France's first free newspapers Monday, unions, angry that printing and distribution agreements had been ignored, destroyed thousands of papers and attacked temporary workers who had been hired to hand out the free sheets. According to the International Herald Tribune, Metro International, which publishes free papers in 21 cities around the world, printed its first Paris edition in Luxembourg after failing to reach agreement with the printing unions. According to the CGT union, only 10 percent of the 200,000 press run reached readers. In Marseille, about 40 CGT members raided a printing plant and destroyed 50,000 copies of Metro intended for France's second city. Ironically, this gave Marseilleplus, a free spinoff from La Provence, a head start on its Scandinavian rival. The business daily Les Echos reported that unions have threatened to prevent the publication of all the daily papers next Monday unless the minister of culture agrees to meet with them to discuss the newcomers, which, they claim, are "parasites" on the system.

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The 24-page free papers boast that they can be read in less than 20 minutes. Most stories are from news agencies, with some local information and lots of color and graphics. Le Mondeof Paris, which recently spent more than $6 million on a redesign that some critics characterized as a "dumbing-down" (see this Guardianstory for more on Le Monde Lite), describedMetro's lineup as "a cocktail that is likely to deprive newspapers, especially popular [tabloids], of a part of their readership."

Le Monde describedMetro's methods as "dumping." Already boasting a stable of international ad clients, the company's launch special offered advertisers an 80 percent discount, "unusually high" for the French market. Le Monde's editorial said that while competition is desirable, all parties should be on a level playing field. Union agreements add around 30 percent to the cost of producing and distributing national newspapers; by avoiding this markup, Metro has an unfair advantage.

Libération characterizedMetro's business model as a financier's dream: journalism without the expense of journalists. Where Libération employs 250 journalists, Metro has 10. "Newspapers, especially the national dailies, are machines that produce information, process it, verify it, and analyze it. These teams, with bureaus and correspondents around the world … have a price. That's what you pay for when you buy a newspaper."

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.