Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber (born 1924) excelled as a journalist and writer on public affairs. His efforts to revive the Radical-Socialist Party in France succeeded temporarily, but he discovered that one cannot breathe life into moribund entities.
Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber was born on February 13, 1924. His parents, Emile Servan-Schreiber and Denise, née Bresard, lived in the fashionable 16th arrondissement of Paris. His father, in partnership with his uncle, had founded Les Echos, the first financial newspaper of France, and it might be said that Jean-Jacques was born to become a journalist. He carried out his secondary studies at the Lycée Janson-de-Sailly in Paris and graduated from the Lycée de Grenoble. He then returned to Paris, where he entered the Ecole Polytechnique, one of the grandes écoles that were the cradles of France's intellectual elite. In 1947 he graduated and also married Madeleine Chapsal on September 18. That marriage ended in divorce several years later, and on August 11, 1960, he married Sabine Becq de Fouquières. He fathered four sons: David, Emile, Franklin, and Edouard.
His career as a journalist began immediately after his graduation in 1947 when he joined the newspaper Le Monde as a reporter. In 1953 he became its diplomatic editor. Like many French newspaper reporters, he held a second job, first as a European correspondent for the American journal The Reporter (1949) and then as foreign affairs writer for Paris-Presse (1951-1952). He was also a freelance contributor to TIME and The New York Herald Tribune. In 1953 he followed the example of his father and established a periodical, a weekly called L'Express, in partnership with Françoise Giroud. He served as director and writer, with a weekly column—Bloc notes—covering mainly but not exclusively political topics. He served in this capacity until 1970, and from 1968 to 1970 was president-general director, then president of the oversight council (1970-1971) of the Express Group. The Express Group was an incorporated fusion of the Société d'Etudes et de Presse and of the Société Express-Union and published the weekly L'Express. By the mid-1960s he had made the periodical a moderately left-wing journal with a format modeled on TIME and Newsweek. Some of his critics accused him of having abandoned his socialist beliefs. A fairer evaluation has been offered by David Caute, "Servan-Schreiber does indeed embody all the self-conscious modern-mindedness of the Kennedy generation in America." His political convictions bring together the "traditional attachment of the left to social justice and social mobility with an admirable grasp of modern economics and technological realities."
At the turn of the decade Servan-Schreiber decided to enter politics actively. In October 1969 he was chosen secretary general of the Radical and Radical-Socialist Party, the oldest political party in French politics, having been founded in 1901-1902. It had been blamed for France's lack of preparation for World War II in 1939—a false accusation, but nonetheless it had not recovered its prewar status. J.-J. S.-S. (as he was known) set out to revive it and to make it a party with the mission to reform France. This meant both the "Americanization" of the economy and extensive social reforms. He was largely responsible for the party's platform calling for an end to the right of private inheritance and to the "grandes ecoles" which created an intellectual and bureaucratic oligarchy and for the creation of a system of civilian economic and social service to replace compulsory military service. This became the manifesto of the party when it was approved by the party's congress of February 14-15, 1970. The next year he was elected president of the party, a post he held until 1979.
Before this occurred he decided to run in a by-election in the district Meurthe-et-Moselle (Nancy) in June 1970 for the National Assembly. A wealthy man by now, he decided to use the tactics that had proved successful in American elections: extensive publicity through the use of television and the press and through travel. He was already well known for his books and his column in L'Express. Reporters began to see him as the "French Kennedy," as the "media man." As though bent upon living up to this he flew 40 reporters from Paris to Nancy and lodged them in a disaffected abbey. He gave numerous press conferences, winning national and international attention. This rather noisy campaigning did not mean that J.-J S.-S. was merely posing. He ran on a platform intended to raise the issue of decentralization in France, where Paris controlled the destinies of all citizens, and he relentlessly blamed the planners in Paris for the economic problems of the Lorraine region. Once endowed with autonomy, he argued, local people would solve their own problems. His candidacy was successful in the first circumscription of Nancy, and he won again in March 1973 and March 1978. However, the Constitutional Council invalidated this last election in June.
This was not his first electoral set-back. Shortly after his initial success in Nancy he decided to challenge the new premier, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, in another by-election in Bordeaux, the second circumscription of Gironde. Once more he resorted to electioneering "ä l'Américaine," with a one hour and 40 minutes appearance on the program "A armes égales" of the French Radio Television Office and numerous two minute appearances. His critics accused him of running in numerous elections as a form of plebiscite and of aiming at the presidency. If this was his ambition, he failed badly; Chaban-Delmas, mayor of Bordeaux, won 63.5 percent of the vote, an unusual victory. J.-J. S.-S. never fully recovered from this defeat of his national and international ambitions.
It was his reputation as a writer that kept his name before a broad audience. Lieutenant in Algeria (1957) is a monumental attack on French government policy in Algeria during the 1950s. J.-J. S.-S. was not a novice in military matters; he had escaped to England during World War II, served in the Free French Air Force, and in 1943 received the military cross for bravery, as well as the Médaille des Evadés and the Médaille des Engagés Volontaires. Drafted into the French army in Algeria, perhaps because of his political stance, he served from 1956 to 1957 and became a lieutenant. After demobilization he founded the National Federation of Algerian Veterans and was its president from 1958 to 1965. For many, his book was a betrayal of France's mission in North Africa; the book, however, clearly indicates that, in his opinion, France had no mission. The government and its politically appointed officers were certainly not interested in a mission civilisatrice that would have won the loyalty of most natives. Rather, the brutalities carried out against fellagha rebels prompted the natives to take sides against the French government. The minister of defense accused him of weakening the morale of the army. He was acquitted of this charge, and his book was one of the many published works that convinced the French that they could not hold Algeria by force of arms.
France's retreat from Algeria released enormous energy in the country; her economy began to take off. But J.-J. S.-S. feared that France was still too ineffective, so he wrote The American Challenge to demonstrate how France and Europe could revitalize themselves. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. caught his meaning. Unlike General de Gaulle, who wished to seal France off from American economic penetration, J.-J. S.-S. advocated a process of "discriminating Americanization." American dynamism lay not in capital investment abroad, not in inventions or technology, but in skilled management, individual initiative, the flexibility of business structure, and decentralized business decisions.
The benefits of decentralization were also the basis of two later books: The Spirit of May (1968) about the student revolt of 1968 and The Radical Alternative (1970), a challenge to the traditional system of centralizing all power of decision in Paris. In 1974 President Giscard d'Estaing named him minister of reform. However, when he spoke out against the resumption of nuclear tests in the South Pacific he was removed, his ministry having lasted only 12 days.
In recompense he became president of the Regional Council of Lorraine (1976-1978). After that he was active in informational services, serving as president for the Centre Mondial pour l'Informatique et les Resources Humaines beginning in 1982.
Nearly 30 years after the publication of The American Challenge, journalists, politicians and historians reference it as they try to explain how and why a new-world capitalism is spreading all over the world. As noted in The Economist newspaper of July 13, 1996: Conglomerates are being broken up; shareholders are clamoring for their rights; the old stable links between managers, owners and bankers are being burst apart. As before, many Europeans fear that this spells the end of Europe's business civilization. They foresee an American maelstrom of atomistic competition, job insecurity and social division. Books such as Servan-Schreiber's have engraved on European minds the sense that American capitalism is a threat. Despite recession and unemployment, many Europeans remain proud of a brand of capitalism that for decades seemed to offer both prosperity and social justice.
Additional information on J.-J. S.-S. can be found in Raymond Barrillon, Servan-Schreiber, pour quoi faire? (1971). Other sources include the Times Literary Supplement (November 23, 1967, and July 25, 1968), the New York Review of Books (June 20, 1968), the New York Times Book Review (July 28, 1968, and March 16, 1969), LIFE (May 17, 1968), News-week (July 22, 1968, and June 24, 1974), and The Economist (July 13, 1996). □