*Journal des Débats


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Journal des Débats

French journal, 1789–1939
The Journal des Débats, Politiques et Littéraires (Journal of political and literary debates) was founded in 1789 to cover the proceedings of the National Assembly. Its name was changed to the Journal de l’Empire by Napoleon, appearing under that title through 31 March 1814, the date of the capitulation of Paris. Five days later, on 6 April, Napoleon abdicated, the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France, and the “first empire” was over. The new newspaper, using its original name and authorized by an official decree, was owned by a small group of individuals. Success was phenomenal, as the paper quickly achieved 23,000 subscribers, against 6300 for its nearest rival, La Gazette de France.
The paper’s immediate demand for complete freedom of the press led speedily to the appointment of a police commissar for each newspaper. The Débats, as it soon came to be known popularly, was itself liberal-conservative, adopting the political views of Benjamin Constant, anti-Romantic in the arts, and conservative economically. Constant bravely published an outright and now famous attack on Napoleon in the Débats on 19 March 1815 during the welcoming phase of the hundred days. The paper consistently attacked the abuse of power and, on the collapse of the group surrounding the philosopher and economist Saint-Simon, welcomed refugees from his followers, successors to the old “ideologist” camp of materialistic social reformers with broad international interests. From 1833 to 1835 it published Michel Chevalier’s “Lettres de l’Amérique du Nord” (Letters from North America), and on 10 May 1852 published a famous article by him against protectionism and in favor of free trade. The Débats was friendly to the English in 1857 and hostile to the Jesuits. Later on, its views were to become clearly anti-clerical.
After the sea change in French newspaper history brought about in 1836 by the simultaneous launch of Armand Dutacq’s Le Siècle (The century) and Émile de Girardin’s La Presse at half the ordinary subscription price, the conservatively presented Débats, with its conventional four pages of double columns, had to make concessions.
Alongside the political speeches, reports of court occasions, and book and theater reviews, some column inches began to be devoted to faits divers like accidents and particularly important crimes. It also began to publish the immensely popular serial fiction which newspapers were carrying at the bottom of their front pages. The Débats was lucky enough to contract Eugène Sue, whose unbelievably successful, but at the time largely unwritten, Les Mystères de Paris (The mysteries of Paris) ran from June 1842 to October 1843, doubling the circulation from 5000 to 10,000. The office staff at the Débats had to help devise incidents to keep the plot going, as well as cliffhangers at the end of each episode, when Sue’s inspiration flagged. The paper went on to publish George Sand, notably François le Champi (1848). The upmarket style and solidly bourgeois readership, of which about two-thirds came from outside Paris, enabled it to achieve an advertising revenue as high as that of Le Constitutionnel (The constitutional), which had more than double the circulation.
While the Débats was never primarily a forum for the publication of essays, Hippolyte Taine published in its pages many pieces which we would now call essays. The ex-prime minister and educational reformer François-Pierre-Guillaume Guizot also published complimentary pieces about Taine in the paper in 1857. The intellectual and cultural orientation of the paper was epitomized in its long association with both Taine and Ernest Renan, who published a collection of his essays which had first appeared in the Débats, and who once wrote in its pages, “What is needed at the moment is an intellectual and spiritual elite.”
While the newspaper was eventually a champion of fiction—contracting Balzac to write two novels for it, serializing Alexandre Dumas and Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau—it contributed above all to the steady development of the essay as a vehicle for reviewing and discussing cultural pursuits, particularly those touching on literature and the performing arts, reflecting the way in which during the 19th century the development of literacy diminished cultural dependency on drama.
The influence of the Débats remained higher than is suggested by the bare circulation figures, down to 7000 by 1880. In 1884 it took over Le Parlement (The parliament) and in 1894 began publishing morning and evening editions, retaining a staid, conservative style until World War II, when it was closed permanently.

ANTHONY LEVI

Further Reading
Jakoby, Ruth, Das Feuilleton des “Journal des Débats” von 1814 bis 1830, ein Beitrag zur Literaturdiskussion der Restauration, Tübingen: Narr, 1988
Mège, Francisque, Les Fondateurs du “Journal des Débats” en 1789, Paris: Faure, 1865 Nettement, Alfred, Histoire politique, anecdotique et littéraire, du “Journal des Débats”, Paris: Echo de France, 2 vols., 1838
Pereire, Alfred, Le “Journal des Débats” politiques et littéraires, 1814–1914, Paris: Champion, 1914

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