Hubert Beuve-Méry, the “grand old man of French journalism,” was the founder of Le Monde, France’s leading daily and a household name throughout the world. Asked by General Charles de Gaulle to set up a newspaper of reference after the country’s liberation from German occupation in 1944, Beuve-Méry’s commitment to independence led him into frequent conflict with de Gaulle during his 25 years in the editor’s chair.
Born on January 5, 1902, in Paris, Beuve-Méry was a correspondent in Prague for the French establishment paper Le Temps at the time of the 1938 Munich Pact, when Britain and France accepted Adolf Hitler’s demand that the Sudentenland be ceded to Germany, but he resigned to protest the paper’s editorial line, which favoured appeasement of Hitler.
Following the liberation, Beuve-Méry founded Le Monde on the ruins of Le Temps. Taking over Le Temps’ offices, plant and gothic masthead and using those staff members who had not collaborated with the Germans, he steered the rechristened paper through financial crises and challenges from successive French governments to establish it as the embodiment of independent French journalism. Although De Gaulle’s government initially subsidised Le Monde, Beuve-Méry was quick to instil an exemplary model of the proper relationship between government and the press in a country where the rule had been complicity. In the words of Le Monde, Beuve-Méry was “haunted by the memory of the pre-war French press, with its close political compromises and close links with ‘money’.”
His famous pen name, “Sirius,” was reportedly a misprint that arose from a proof-reader’s failure to recognise the English word “serious.” Beuve-Méry did not hesitate to take major risks by standing up to de Gaulle about political institutions and practices, including France’s role in Indochina and Algeria, at great potential cost to the paper and himself. Every time de Gaulle made a major pronouncement, “Sirius” would reply in his front-page editorial, frequently infuriating the general. On their last meeting, de Gaulle rejected the idea of a private interview, comparing Beuve-Méry to Mephistopheles, a reference to the devil in the Faust legend, and said, “What good will it do? You know my ideas and I know yours.”
In 1969, Beuve-Méry retired his editorship, although he retained an office at the Le Monde building, from where he gave discreet advice to his successors. He carefully went through the paper each day, taking two to three hours to read the paper in its entirety, and was one of the architects who enabled Le Monde to get through a financial crisis in 1984.
Beuve-Méry died at age 87 on August 6, 1989, at his home in Fontainebleau, near Paris. Considered a conscience of the press in the full and true sense of the term, his death brought worldwide recognition to his enormous contribution to serious journalism after the Second World War. He was a founding member of the International Press Institute and the driving force behind the creation in 1974 of the Journalists in Europe Fund, a Paris-based organisation that aimed to improve the quality of reporting of European affairs by offering training programs to young and experienced journalists from all over the world.
Speaking at the 39th IPI General Assembly in Bordeaux, France, in 1990, the then-Director Peter Galliner paid tribute to a departed colleague: “Hubert Beuve-Méry was one of the IPI’s founding fathers nearly 40 years ago. Until his death last August, he had maintained a very active interest in the development of the IPI. Through him, the Institute had always enjoyed the support of the élite of French journalists and editors who belonged to our organisation … In his support for the IPI, he never wavered, and for nearly 40 years, he defended press freedom, freedom of expression and human rights.”
From Our Archive
A tribute by a colleague, Henri Pigeat, former president of Agence France-Presse, together with an independent assessment of his career.
IPI Director pays tribute to departed colleagues, 1990.
“The ‘grand old man of French journalism’, Hubert Beuve-Méry, creator of Le Monde, was one of the IPI’s 15 founding fathers.”