PARIS -- Bonjour from Paris! It's 3 a.m. Tuesday morning here. This has been a really exciting day. Every time I come to Paris -- starting with my first trip outside Greece when I was 11 -- I love every minute here. But this trip was special, as I'm here to announce the upcoming launch of Le Huffington Post, in partnership with Le Monde and French media powerhouse Les Nouvelles Editions Indépendantes (LNEI).
The new site, which will of course be in French, will be up and running by the end of the year, combining HuffPost's signature mix of news, blogging, community, and social engagement with our partners' unmatched local expertise. Le Huffington Post will be deeply rooted in French culture and run by French journalists. It will, like France itself, have a very distinct personality -- its own way of approaching the world.
And to make that happen, we couldn't have found better partners. Though it's certainly venerable, Le Monde is actually not that old. It was founded in 1944, at the request of Charles de Gaulle, to be an independent and truly French voice that would take the place of Le Temps, which had been irreparably tainted during the German occupation. Le Monde's founding editor was the legendary Hubert Beuve-Méry, who was famously feisty, independent, incorruptible and pessimistic (for which some might say there's a pretty high bar in France). ''He was upright, exacting and constant," said President François Mitterrand when Beuve-Méry passed away in 1989. "He never betrayed himself." He was also legendary for being a fierce thorn in the side of those in power. "Journalism is contact and distance," he wrote. "Both are necessary. Sometimes there is too much contact, and not enough distance. Sometimes it's the opposite. A difficult equilibrium."
Le Monde has a unique organizational structure, in which its editors, writers and staffers have a powerful voice in management decisions. And though the paper is a French institution, it is also no stranger to the web -- having been online since 1995.
As we've worked out the details of our partnership, it's been a real pleasure getting to know Louis Dreyfus, the CEO of Le Monde (one of the few French chief executives regularly on Twitter), and Matthieu Pigasse, one of three major Le Monde shareholders, as well as the owner and Chairman of LNEI, which puts out the pop culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles. Oh, yes, he is also the European head of Lazard, an ardent fan of punk rock and videogames, and known to sleep very few hours a night (so he can expect me to be on his case about getting more sleep!). Working with Louis and Matthieu has also allowed me the chance to shake the rust off my French (and, yes, apparently I have something of a Greek accent in French, too).
This is a great moment to be entering the world of French news. Across the political spectrum, people are asking the big questions -- about the European Union, about class, about immigration, about race, about what the government's responsibility is to its people, about what the people's responsibility is to their country, about what it means to be French, about what it means to be European.
Just this weekend there was the first-ever American-style primary for the French Socialist Party. At least for the time being, the Socialists are widely believed to have a good chance of unseating President Nicolas Sarkozy in elections next year. This, and the fact that the Socialists haven't won the presidency since 1988, made the primary particularly important. The move to a primary was premised on the idea that this would result in a candidate with broader appeal for the general election. But though the primary was American-style, its other elements were thoroughly French. The winner was François Hollande, the party's former leader. But because he got under 50 percent, he'll face a runoff against Martine Aubry. In fourth place was Ségolène Royal, the candidate who lost to Sarkozy in 2007. She's also Hollande's former partner and the mother of his four children. The couple split up in 2007, after Hollande had an affair with a journalist -- though they decided to do the mature thing and remain
friends Socialists ("Honey, let's not fight in front of the Party").
There's also the saga of what might be called France's Lehman Brothers -- a troubled banking giant called Dexia, which France and Germany have just decided to bail out. Apparently it was exposure to Greek bonds -- not Greeks -- that brought the bank down.
It's also intriguing watching how France, a country with a defiantly unique social personality, is putting its stamp on social media. According to a recent article by our new partner (translated here by Time.com), using Twitter to teach journalism and good writing is gaining steam in France. One teacher, Jean-Roch Masson began employing Twitter in 2010 with the slogan, "We are going to be the journalists of our own lives." Could there be a better motto for journalism in the era of social media? And as another teacher Stéphanie de Vanssay points out, Twitter can make students realize that writing is, ultimately, about communication. "Just writing a line makes no real sense," she says, "but writing it for someone does."
And we'll get the chance to cover -- up close and personal -- those there-will-always-be-a-France stories people love to share. Like this story about how the words "Twitter" and "Facebook" were banned this summer from being used on TV or radio, unless in a news story. The decision was based on a 1992 decree holding that mentioning brand names like these constitutes an unfair act of advertising. So maybe we'll get some great lines in French TV shows like, "Hey, will you select me as part of your social circle on a popular online community site, assuming we are, in fact, both members of such a site, if one were to exist?"
Even more French is the ban, or at least the constraint, on putting ketchup on french fries -- or anything else -- in French schools. The purpose of the regulation isn't health, but education -- about French culinary history and standards. Baguettes, along with ennui, are being offered without limit.
One thing we hope to have an impact on is the distinction, still being stubbornly clung to in much of French media, between online journalism and print journalism. In the U.S. that line is quickly eroding, as traditional outlets adopt the tools of digital journalists, including speed, transparency, and social engagement, and new media adopt the best practices of traditional journalism, including fact-checking, accuracy, and fairness.
But in France, blogs and online journalists are still deuxième classe. For example, last year the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche reported rumors that both President Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, were having affairs. But the report only ran on the paper's website, as if there were different standards for accuracy online and off, and their website was suitable simply for rumors and speculation ("Tartuffe in the age of Twitter" the New York Times' Steven Erlanger called it). So we hope Le Huffington Post can help bring a little egalite to the world of French digital journalism, as well as make the site a destination for real and meaningful conversation.
Also being imported from HuffPost HQ will be our commitment to breaking down another distinction -- that between right and left. This should be especially interesting, given that France is where the terms were given their political meaning. The designations date from the French Revolution, in which supporters of the king sat on the president's right side in the National Assembly and those opposed sat on the left. We like to think that there is some great meaning behind the ways we identify ourselves. But as the history of right vs. left shows, it's often arbitrary -- which is great for those of us who can't wait to get beyond the constant division of every issue into right vs. left. Sometimes right vs. left is just a seating chart.
I spoke about these and other related issues last night when I gave this year's inaugural address at the Centre de Formation des Journalistes. I was introduced by Henri Pigeat, the Centre's chairman, and the former CEO of Agence France-Presse. Pigeat is a tireless defender of press freedom, and an articulate voice on how technology can be used to improve journalism. (It goes without saying that I asked him to blog for our new site.)
As I said, we plan to launch "Le Huff" by the end of the year. So whether you find yourself in France, or just want to hang out in a virtual French café, come to Le Huffington Post and join the conversation. À bientôt!