Thursday, August 9, 2012

Le Canard enchaîné (4)

From The New York Time's Saturday Profile.

Photo: Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

Claude Angeli had his little black book on the table — a real little black book, leather bound and yellowing pages. No BlackBerry. No iPhone. No computer in sight.

Mr. Angeli is the 79-year-old executive editor of Le Canard Enchaîné, a weekly satirical newspaper. He writes his articles longhand.

True, Le Canard Enchaîné has a Web page, but there is little on it beyond images of old front pages and the suggestion that you buy the paper on Wednesdays at your newsstand. Le Canard Enchaîné is “about paper and ink,” it says.

Don’t even consider snickering.

This is not some strange journalism backwater. Mr. Angeli and his crew of 16 journalists — fewer than half of them writing on computers — are probably the most successful “gotcha” journalists in the country.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Angeli pulled a small index card from his black book — a running list of this year’s triumphs. There was the public official who charged about $16,800 worth of cigars to the state and the one who lied about the size of his house to get around zoning laws in Provence.

And there was, of course, the former foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, who was forced to step down after the newspaper revealed that she had been vacationing in Tunisia, flying around with associates of the former dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and offering him French tear gas even as the pro-democracy protests were under way.

“It has been an interesting year,” said Mr. Angeli, who like everyone else at Le Canard Enchaîné works in an open area and uses a tiny, bare conference room for interviews. “Two top officials had to step down. Two did not get reappointed.”

Tall and thin, Mr. Angeli rarely wears anything but jeans and an oxford shirt. He looks far younger than his years and still clearly gets excited at the prospect of revealing the greed and stupidity of government officials.

“This is what we do,” he said. “We reveal things that are hidden.”

He has worked at Le Canard Enchaîné for 40 years and is the author of some of its biggest stories and a half-dozen books. He is not one to mess with a winning formula. The paper looks much the same — eight pages, lots of cartoons — as when he took charge 20 years ago.

“If we put our stories up on the Internet, who would buy the paper on Wednesday?” he said. “We believe in print.”

France’s large daily newspapers are flailing. Le Monde’s circulation has been declining. The left-leaning Libération, the same. Le Figaro is seen as the mouthpiece of the right and is not doing any better.

But Mr. Angeli’s Canard Enchaîné — a mix of investigative pieces, facetious opinion pieces, fictitious columns by politicians and no advertising — is seen as lacking a political bent. Its circulation has risen 32 percent since the diminutive Nicolas Sarkozy took office in 2007 and was nicknamed by the newspaper “Sarkoléon.”

Why the surge in readers? Mr. Angeli shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says.

But he does believe that government workers have such a low opinion of Mr. Sarkozy that there are more leaks than usual. And then there is Mr. Sarkozy’s wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a former model and singer, an easy target for satire.

The paper runs a fictitious diary called “Le Journal de Carla B” each week. In it, she refers to Mr. Sarkozy as Chouchou, an endearment akin to little darling. During the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it had her fretting that her vacations were about to be ruined: “My little swims with Chouchou in front of paparazzi stuck up with oil just like the pelicans! Obama, do something!”

Mr. Angeli did not start out with any intention of becoming a journalist. He was born outside of Paris, his father was a gym teacher and he spent his early 20s playing volleyball.

Then, he joined the Communist Party, where his contemporaries included Bernard Kouchner, who went on to found Doctors Without Borders. But soon, Mr. Angeli was disillusioned and got a job at Le Nouvel Observateur, where Jean-Paul Sartre, among others, plied the trade.

“I learned by being edited,” Mr. Angeli said. “I would write, and they would rewrite. It is a good way to learn.”

When a photographer arrived to take his picture, he looked embarrassed. Asked to sit in an armchair below a wall of cartoons, he refused. “I’ll look pompous,” he said.

But he chuckles easily when describing some of his favorite stories. He is eager to show off the spot in an upstairs office where agents from France’s domestic intelligence agency, disguised as workmen, tried to bury listening devices in the wall in 1973, shortly after Mr. Angeli had landed one of his biggest scoops.

He had published the tax returns of the prime minister, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, which showed that he had barely paid any taxes. The workmen were caught by a reporter. It was Le Canard Enchaîné’s own Watergate, known in France as the “Plumbers’ affair.”

The hole in the wall remains. A plaque reminiscent of a headstone sits above it.

That was only one of Mr. Angeli’s big scoops — and some are recent. In November, he revealed that Mr. Sarkozy was personally involved in spying on journalists who produced stories embarrassing to his administration. Mr. Sarkozy and his spokespeople denied any involvement, describing the accusations as “grotesque.” Two of those involved threatened to sue.

“In the end, we never heard from them,” he said.

Mr. Angeli says the day may come when he gives up the executive editorship, but he has no intention of ever giving up writing.

“What would I do?” he said. “ Get out my slippers? No way.”

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