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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les 1001 naissances de {l’Humanité}

by Cédric Clérin

The 1,001 births and rebirths of {l’Humanité}

Translated Thursday 18 April 2019, by Henry Crapo

The newspaper celebrates its 115th anniversary with a history punctuated by financial difficulties. Solidarity has helped to overcome those many political and economic obstacles.

From the very first day, Jaurès warned: "Making a major newspaper survive without it being at the mercy of other business groups is a difficult but not insoluble problem." For 115 years the newspaper, which was first published on April 18, 1904, has continued to demonstrate the relevance of these warnings uttered at its founding.

Published in l’Humanité on Thursday, April 18, 2019

Just over a year after its first edition, l’Humanité experienced its first difficulties, in the summer of 1905. With 12,000 copies sold, the existence of the newspaper was already in question. The Rothschild bank even made a purchase proposal, which was rejected by Jaurès. However, the management was forced to eliminate 15 positions and to cut the staff payment envelope in half. Employees had to accept a significant salary reduction. The Globe Congress, which united the socialists, was held in April and provided the backdrop for the emerging editorial history. The subject of heated debates, l’Humanité was then in the fold of the Unified Socialist Party without being its central organ.

The second birth in 1906

The political situation was unstable, and the economic situation was very difficult. Jules Renard, one of the newspaper’s journalists, wrote in his diary on 17 January 1906: "L’Humanité. This is the end: its electricity was turned off. Three men produce the newspaper. When night falls, they wait for us to bring the candles. " On October 3, 1906, barely thirty months after his famous "Our Goal", Jaurès wrote a "Our Crisis", which painfully echoed it. "Now our forces are exhausted, and if we do not receive immediate help, we will succumb to the burden," he wrote. "The brutality of the announcement aroused great emotion. We are mobilizing in support of the newspaper. A new perspective is being given to everyday life," said historian Alexandre Courban. The mobilization allowed a second birth: on December 22, 1906, the Société nouvelle du journal l’Humanité, which still publishes the newspaper today, was created. In January 1907, the first individual subscription was launched to open l’Humanité to "all tendencies, all ideas, all forces of socialism and to the organized proletariat". Subscriptions from workers, unions and cooperatives saved the newspaper from sinking. The evolution of editorial content with more information and social news allowed it to broaden its audience. From 40,000 copies in January 1907, it rose to 88,000 in December. Under the editorial control of its editor, the newspaper starts again with the Socialist Party as its main shareholder, to which it became organically linked in 1911.

Republican socialist at first and then socialist, l’Humanité became a "communist newspaper" after the Congress of Tours in 1920. "One thing that has remained unchanged is the newspaper’s absolute independence from moneyed powers," noted Etienne Fajon, who later became the newspaper’s director [1]. Throughout this decade, the newspaper denounced the Rif war, the occupation of the Ruhr, and gave echos in France of the October Revolution. From seizures in court, to fines and imprisonment of its leaders (Paul Vaillant-Couturier, its editor-in-chief, was imprisoned for criticizing Mussolini), and l’Humanité was under attack from all sides.

In 1929, the Tardieu government had the Banque ouvrière et paysanne occupied by the police, put it into liquidation and had the court administrators demand payment of the newspaper’s debts. Nothing then seemed to be able to save l’Humanité. Its director, Marcel Cachin, called for the creation of Defense Committees for l’Humanité (CDH). 1.5 million francs were collected in four months. The newspaper was saved once again by its readers and supporters.

The first festival of l’Humanité, in 1930

The CDH met the following year during the first Festival of l’Humanité. Created in the midst of the crisis, it will become a fundamental element of the newspaper’s influence, by bringing together several hundred thousand participants at the beginning of September each year throughout its 83 editions.

In 1939, the method of silencing l’Humanité was even more brutal: the paper was banned on 26 August at the same time as the Communist Party. That doesn’t matter. The clandestine Huma appeared on 26 October 1939 and published 317 issues throughout the war. "Huma! A poor Huma, a mere scrap of paper, badly mimeographed, but the it’s the Huma", as Guillaume Vallier says to Aragon in The Communists. They give life to their newspapers at risk of their own lives, just as do the newspaper’s teams, many of whom, including Gabriel Péri and Lucien Sampaix, were murdered by the occupiers or by the Vichy police. On 21 August 1944, the Huma was reintroduced openly again in the form of a double-sided sheet at a cost of 2 francs. In the aftermath of the war, the Bichet law permitted a certain equality in the distribution of the press and sanctioned pre-war trusts, most of which had collaborated. Press pluralism became a constitutional principle and l’Humanité , like the Liberation newspapers, was guaranteed a place in the public debate. However, the major publishers soon weakened the law through intense lobbying of parliamentarians [2].

On October 3, 1948, the family was enlarged: the birth of l’Humanité Dimanche would allow the CDHs to reach their full potential. In 1963, there were 40,000 in such commitees across the country and half a million copies of the weekly were sold. Despite such results, the press economy remained very complicated and a subscription was launched that same year to balance the newspaper’s accounts. "The production of the newspaper (paper and printing) represents 60% of its expenses. These are incompressible costs. Neither the initiative and rigour of a scrupulous administration, nor the selfless dedication of our employees can compensate for them. l’Humanité therefore needs help," wrote Étienne Fajon in 1964. To guarantee pluralism, his successor, Roland Leroy, obtained, from the State, assistance for dailies with low advertising resources.

The challenge of technological revolutions

In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought a new major challenge for the newspaper that was born eighty-five years earlier, and that was already facing a worsening press crisis. It was through a social plan that the newspaper began a decade that saw it cease to be the central organ of the PCF in 1994. Five years later, l’Humanité Dimanche was suppressed, a new project whose stated ambition was to broaden l’Humanité’s readership failed and led to a new crisis, with social consequences again in 2001. The period that began was marked in particular by major social movements, the centenary of 1904 and the battle against the TCE (Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe) of 2005, in which the paper played a crucial role. The magazine, which had disappeared, was revived in 2006 thanks to some 8,000 co-founders. It reached more than 70,000 readers a few months after a successful launch. An editorial and financial success that did not prevent l’Humanité from falling under debts that forced it to sell its headquarters, built by Oscar Niemeyer in 1989. Thanks to the sale ofthe building and an exceptional subscription, the newspaper was once again saved.

In 2019, now placed in receivership, the challenge for Jaurès’ newspaper is to succeed in finding its place in a technological revolution that disrupts reading habits and requires substantial funds. 90% of the media are owned by 9 billionaires who can absorb the losses of an economic model that is currently hard to find. As it has been around for 115 years, l’Humanité can survive thanks to the joint efforts of its teams and the unwavering support of its readers.

[1By leafing through l’Humanité 1904-1964.

[2L’Âge d’or de la corruption parlementaire 1930-1980, by Jean-Yves Mollier. Perrin, 2018.


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