The French satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné is such essential reading that judges at Christine Lagarde's trial last month were incredulous when the International Monetary Fund director claimed she had not read it in her previous job as France's minister for finance.
The scourge of vain, hypocritical and corrupt politicians, the Canard celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016. It sells 400,000 copies, including 70,000 to subscription readers. At a time of crisis in print media, it had a profit of €2.4 million in 2015, on a turnover of €24 million. Reserves totalling €100 million ensure it could weather virtually any crisis.
The Canard does all this without advertising or shareholders. Its only internet presence is an image of its front page.
The paper's editor, Érik Emptaz, is often asked why the Canard does not go digital. "People say, 'Is it because you're old-fashioned?' The first reason is economic. In France, no media make profits on the internet, even with advertising. If, like us, you don't accept advertising, it would be suicidal," Emptaz told the Anglo-American Press Association.
“Newspapers rushed to give themselves away for free on the internet,” Emptaz continued. “They lost half their readers when they started to charge.
"Weeklies like L'Express and L'Obs try to post something every 15 minutes. It costs a lot, so they hire interns who write unchecked stories. Then they have to post a correction, but it's okay because that counts as another story. That's what it's come to. They're all copying each other, trying to find a way to make money, and nobody's found it."
Every Canard story is checked and rechecked, Emptaz says. "If I received information from my son or daughter, I would check it the same way." The paper seldom loses a legal action.
Every Tuesday afternoon, couriers from the Élysée Palace, government ministries and other French media queue outside the Canard's office for the first copies of the paper.
Most readers start with the second page, titled “La Mare aux Canards” (the Duck Pond), where civil servants and politicians settle scores by leaking dirt about each other.
The Canard's scoops are the stuff of journalistic legend: the "sniffer planes" commissioned by the petroleum company Elf Aquitaine, which was then publicly owned, in the late 1970s at a cost of a billion francs; the Central African emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa's gift of diamonds to French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.
When Pierrette Le Pen divorced Jean-Marie, the founder of the extreme right-wing Front National, she posed nude for Playboy magazine to annoy him. The Canard received a photograph of Le Pen putting on his swimming togs behind a palm tree. They published nude photos of the estranged couple as a "fesse-à-fesse" (fesse means "buttocks") – a play on the expression "face-to-face".
Le Pen’s attempt to block distribution of the paper failed. “An hour later, there wasn’t a paper to be found on any newsstand,” Emptaz recalls. “We reprinted. It was one of the rare trials we lost, for invasion of privacy. It cost the equivalent of €15 million, but our circulation doubled.”
Serious investigations sometimes go unnoticed, Emptaz says. But a simple story last July, revealing that President François Hollande’s barber is paid nearly €10,000 a month, was picked up around the world.
“It was the barber’s fault,” Emptaz explained. “An obscure book had underestimated his salary, and he felt insulted, so he started legal proceedings. That’s how the story came to us.”
The satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the investigative website Mediapart follow the Canard's example of rejecting advertising and shareholders.
The Canard is closer in spirit to Charlie Hebdo. Both aim to make readers laugh, and rely heavily on cartoons, though Charlie Hebdo does not do investigative reporting.
The jihadist attack that killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo on January 7th, 2015, deeply affected the Canard, because Cabu, one of the slain cartoonists, also worked for it.
Until the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, the Canard did not take threats seriously. "There was a letter from a guy saying he was going to attack us with an axe," Emptaz says. "We turned it into a joke, saying: 'It's not every day we get to split our sides.' The police said: 'Are you mad?'"
Mediapart is sometimes portrayed as a newer, meaner, digital competitor to the Canard. It broke the story of Jérôme Cahuzac, the tax-cheating budget minister who was the biggest scandal of the Hollande administration.
But, as Emptaz notes, Mediapart is not satirical. “We do investigative reporting, but we tell it in a funny, joking manner.They have a preachy, self-righteous tone.”
Indignation and laughter
Maurice Maréchal, who founded the Canard, wrote: "My first reaction, when I see something scandalous, is indignation. My second reaction is to laugh. It's more difficult, but more effective."
The word “canard” is slang for “newspaper,” but it also means a tall tale. The adjective “enchained” was a nod to Georges Clémenceau, the journalist and politician who served as prime minister during the first World War.
"Clémenceau owned a newspaper called L'Homme libre," Emptaz explains. "When censorship started, he changed the name to L'Homme enchaîné."
Emptaz's hiring by the Canard in 1978 was consistent with the paper's anti-clerical tradition. He was a journalist with the irreverent daily Le Quotidien de Paris when Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical severely condemning adultery, masturbation and homosexuality.
Emptaz and two other journalists went to churches around Paris, then published verbatim accounts of their confessions. “Depending on the neigbourhood, penitence was not the same for the same sin,” he recounts, laughing.
"The archbishop of Paris was furious. We learned from the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that we had been excommunicated, for betraying the secrecy of the confessional. "
Le Quotidien de Paris was going bankrupt. Editors at the Canard liked Emptaz's story so much that they recruited him.