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France debates antitrust press law

''What are your newspaper's politics, right- or left-wing?'' A foreign correspondent in France is often asked this question. Here the press is openly partisan. Each daily is labeled politically, and it often expresses its owner's point of view in thinly disguised polemics.

This background is necessary to understand the controversy raging here between ultraconservative press magnate Robert Hersant and the Socialist government.

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At issue is the government's proposed antitrust press law. The bill stirred an angry debate in the French Parliament, forcing the government to put off a vote until January. But because the Socialists have a parliamentary majority, in the end its passage is practically assured.

The bill would prohibit publishers from owning both Paris and regional newspapers and from controlling more than 15 percent of either Paris or regional circulation. This, the government says, will guarantee the pluralism of the press.

But critics, led by Hersant, charge the real aim of the measure is to strip the powerful publisher of his holdings and his considerable influence over public opinion.

Indeed, the bill's restrictions on newspaper ownership would affect only the Hersant group. That group is France's largest, reaching about 1 in every 5 French readers. Hersant owns three Paris dailies, Le Soir, Le Figaro, and L'Aurore, as well as a dozen regional newspapers and a score of specialized publications - all of which use every opportunity to rail against the Socialist government.

No wonder, then, that the left has long detested Hersant. Le Monde has compared him to Citizen Kane and called him a threat to democracy. Ever since they came to power in 1981, the Socialists have been fighting a guerrilla battle against what they see as Hersant's ''information monopoly.''

A tax audit of Hersant's holdings last year resulted in a $23 million fine, and last September the government forced him to reduce the price of Le Figaro, charging that it violated price contols.

If the bill passes, Hersant will have to choose between keeping his regional group and his national papers. Either way, the pugnacious publisher will lose much of his bite.

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''I'm like Lech Walesa,'' Hersant has taken to proclaiming. Just as the Polish union leader has been harassed by ''a popular democracy,'' the publisher claims he is being unjustly oppressed.

Although the comparison may be exaggerated, Hersant has succeeded in casting himself as a martyr. Even many on the left are criticizing the government for vindictiveness. Serge July of Liberation claims the government is guilty of ''Hersantphobia.'' And Le Monde editorialized that the government's bill was not designed to help the press, but to ''settle scores.''

Mr. Hersant is an unlikely martyr. During World War II, he supported Marshal Petain's collaborationist government. Some anti-Jewish remarks remain on the record, and after the war he was sentenced to a decade of ''national indignity, '' forbidding him from holding office or owning a newspaper.

Collaborators were prohibited from owning newspapers as part of a conscious effort by General de Gaulle to remake the French press. In a 1944 law, the general also decreed that to prevent newspaper concentration, no one person could own more than a single publication.

De Gaulle hoped to prevent a repeat of the sad history of French journalism during the 1930s and '40s. Before the war, financial problems corrupted the press: Editorials and news columns were often sold to the highest bidder. During the war, much of the press supported the Nazis and Vichy.

But Hersant would be amnestied in 1952, and he quietly entered the publishing world and built his empire. Starting with the ownership of an automobile magazine, he maneuvered around the 1944 law by claiming it applied only to someone who owns a newspaper personally, not to a corporation such as the one he heads.

Hersant's business tactics were ruthless - and effective. He would buy ailing local papers, merge them under one title, and print several editions. This allowed him to cut the size of the staff, install modern printing plants, and reduce advertising rates.

After building his regional empire, Hersant turned his method loose on the Parisian dailies in the late 1970s. First he bought Le Figaro. Then L'Aurore. Soon the only difference in the papers was the logo.

Such practices have not endeared Hersant to journalists. When he took over Paris-Normandie and France Soir, the writers struck. When he took over Le Figaro , much of the staff resigned.

But others in the press agree with Hersant's claims that his business methods are necessary. Without his money and skill, Hersant claims, many ailing newspapers would have folded. ''I am the pluralism of the press,'' he boasted to a group of Anglo-American journalists recently.

The French press is indeed struggling. Losses last year amounted to some $560 million. Le Monde, the most prestigious title, is losing circulation fast. This month it announced it would have to lay off 100 staff members.

The government's proposed law does not address these financial problems. It also does not discuss the problem of the growing number of one-paper cities in France. Or the television monopoly run by the state. As a result, even prestigious left-wing journalists who detest Hersant oppose the law.

''A law to achieve these goals (of press pluralism) is necessary,'' Liberation's Serge July says, ''but not this law.''

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