A Media Innovator Leaves the Scene

JJ-SS was the link between the generations of the Second World War and the French Resistance Movement and the 1960s which saw the end of the war for Algerian independence, the decolonization of most of French Africa, and the growing material prosperity of the country.  The 1950s was his decade with his creative energy put to the support of Pierre Mendez-France who as a short-serving Prime Minister had put an end to the French war in IndoChina.  JJ-SS saw Pierre Mendez-France as the natural leader of French politics, intelligent, a man who understood economic issues and who was beyond narrow party politics.   However, the role of leader was filled by Charles De Gaulle, in many ways the opposite in style from Mendez-France although both men shared a capacity for the longer view with little patience for the give and take of ordinary politics.  De Gaulle held center stage in French politics for 10 years 1958-1968.  While there were political figures who opposed De Gaulle, there was no one who could challenge his central role.  After the 1954 Geneva agreement on IndoChina, Pierre Mendez-France spent most of his time in writing political analysis, though many hoped that events might open a door to his return to politics.

JJ-SS was the French political-literary figure who was most influenced by American life.  His best-known book was  Le Defi americain (The American Challenge) (1967) in which he saw the USA as a natural world leader, but one that would be concerned with itself.  If France – and the rest of Europe – was to prosper, then France had to take the drive, energy and innovative technology of American life and apply it to European interests.


The American model for JJ-SS’s media efforts was Henry Luce, creator of Time  magazine, an independent man who could spot talent, use it for his magazines and who had indirect political power through his influence on public opinion.  Luce had also started his media career early and had invented a whole new media form – the weekly magazine.


JJ-SS discovered the US media when he went to the USA in 1943 to train as a pilot in the Free French airforce.  JJ-SS took over the Time model in nearly all its details when in 1953 he created L’Express ,the first French news magazine. He was only 29.


The Servan-Schreiber family was already owners of serious financial media. His father was co-owner with his uncle of Les Echos,a French equivalent of the Wall Street Journal ,but not as far to the political Right.  JJ-SS’s family put up the money for L’Express,and the first issues were given as a weekend supplement to Les Echos. The idea of a weekly magazine at a time when there were only daily newspapers and monthly journals caught on quickly and became a political, literary, and financial success.


JJ-SS put all his energy into the journal and attracted to it young journalists as well as some established literary figures such as Jean Paul Sartre, Francois Mauriac, the novelist, and Maurice Duverger, a leading political scientist.  JJ-SS titled his autobiography Passions, and JJ-SS had three passions: news, politics, and women, probably in that order but the three were often combined.  The co-founder of L’Express  was the companion of JJ-SS, Francoise Giroud, who had been the editor of a woman’s journal Elle, heavy with fashion news but with social and political articles as well.  Giroud brought a French temperament and style to the magazine while JJ-SS was more interested in the news content which he would have presented in the same way as Luce’s Time.  JJ-SS’s wife Madeleine Chapsal, whom he had married in 1947, was also a writer for L’Express as were the two sisters of JJ-SS and his younger brother.  By 1960, Madeleine Chapsal found the interplay between family, love affairs, money, and news rather complicated and the couple divorced although she continued writing for the magazine.


Just as Pierre Mendez-France was bringing France out of the IndoChina war, the war in Algeria began on 1 November 1954 with a series of planned bomb attacks throughout the country.  Since Algeria was administratively not a colony but part of France, for French political leaders it was not a “war” but a “police action” to restore law and order.  JJ-SS was critical of French policy from the start, and L’Express  became the media voice of opposition to the war, although writers for the journal had different views as to what should be done.


In the hope of removing JJ-SS from the media scene, the Government recalled him to military service and sent him as a lieutenant to Algeria.  While he was in the Army he could not express his views, and Francoise Giroud ran the magazine. JJ-SS wrote his experience Lieutenant en Algerie (1957) which gave his anti-war views all the more weight.


After the end of the Algerian War in 1962 and the stranglehold of De Gaulle on French politics, JJ-SS had less of a central focus to his politics. He was strongly against nuclear weapons and nuclear testing, but as a cause anti-nuclear weapons never had the political drive that had ending the war in Algeria.  He was also strongly against the death penalty before abolition became a popular cause.  Many French turned away from politics to enjoy a more prosperous life.  Thus L’Express started devoting more pages to literature, business, fashion – though not yet a “people” magazine.


By the late 1960s, his interest in a news magazine without a political battle to win started to drift.  Thus he thought that rather than influencing politics indirectly through public opinion, he would get into electoral politics.  He sold L’Express  to raise money for his campaign but without telling Francoise Giroud or the staff who learned about the sale in the newspapers. Tensions followed, and some of the staff left to start other news magazines, very much in the same style.


However, the talents which made JJ-SS a creative, media director – the sense of being a general leading a devoted team into battle, the quick understanding of what was important, a great confidence in his own judgement – made him a poor political player.  JJ-SS was used to meeting with high diplomatic and political figures, having been sent by Mendez-France on secret missions.  He counted that he had crossed the Atlantic 30 times by the end of the 1960s to study the US political system where he knew many political leaders.


If Henry Luce was his media model, John Kennedy was his political model.  JJ-SS had from his media work a knowledge and a flair for publicity.   He organized strong campaigns and was elected to Parliament  more on his name than with any party backing. However, once in Parliament, he grew bored with the small compromises needed for day-to day politics and pushing the material needs of his electoral area.  People did not relate to JJ-SS as they had to Kennedy, and politics needs to be more than well presented publicity. JJ-SS spent the 1970s in electoral politics but made little mark outside his strong opposition to nuclear weapons and his efforts to promote equality for women.


JJ-SS from the time of his Le Defi americain was concerned with the impact of technology on society.  He was one of the first to stress the importance of “the knowledge society.” Thus at the end of the 1970s and discouraged by the lack of imagination in French politics, he accepted an offer to teach at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pennsylvania on science and society. He spent the rest of his working life at Carnegie and only returned to France when he retired in poor health.


The image of JJ-SS remains eternally young – that of him in the 1950s – an example for us in political journalism of the need to innovate to reach a larger number of people in a style they will understand but without trying to mask the complexities of world and national politics.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics http://www.transnational-perspectives.org/ and an NGO representative to the UN in Geneva.