When President Emmanuel Macron said at the Sorbonne on April 25 that “Europe can die,” he quoted French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945), who “said, at the end of the First World War, that we now knew that our civilizations were mortal.”

The French leader could have chosen another, perhaps less philosophical, but more recent, reference: an article by the first director of Le Monde, Hubert Beuve-Méry (1902-1989), published in the Catholic weekly Temps présent on June 29, 1945, three days after the adoption of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco. “Drafted in Dumbarton Oaks, reworked in Yalta, defined on the shores of the Pacific, this document illustrates quite well the decline of Europe. Neither Portugal, nor Spain, nor Italy, nor Switzerland, nor Sweden, nor Germany of course took part. And France, promoted, after China, to the rank of great power, played only a belated and, if anything, rather secondary role. That this situation is not beyond appeal we would like to believe, but if the essential regroupings and turnarounds were to wait too long, Europe could lose even its name.”

Beuve-Méry was 43 at the time, and it was not for nothing that he was concerned about the future of Europe. The founder of Le Monde remained deeply affected by the decade he spent as a correspondent in Prague, from 1929 to 1939, notably for Le Temps, the most widely read French daily paper abroad at the time, and considered the unofficial mouthpiece of France’s Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. In those 10 years he saw the countries of Central and Eastern Europe embroiled in fatal rivalries, creating a breeding ground for the expansionist aims of Nazi Germany. They were years that forged his conviction that Europe must unite if it was to survive.

This prompted him to write in Esprit magazine, in March 1941: “When the airplane travels at nearly 1,000 kilometers an hour, when the radio instantly transmits the same voice to every listener on the planet, when the same moving images seize the senses and imagination of millions of spectators at the same moment, there can be no question of changing regimes, currencies or trains at the drop of a hat. In other words, the principles that have long been the foundations of Europe – the absolute sovereignty of states large and small, European equilibrium, the right of neutrality – must give way to a more orderly development of the continent.”

Reading these lines, it becomes clear why Le Monde was almost called “Le Continent,” one of three names – along with “L’Univers” – between which Beuve-Méry hesitated when Pierre-Henri Teitgen (1908-1997), President Charles de Gaulle’s minister of information, approached him in October 1944 to launch a new daily newspaper based on the model of Le Temps, which had been shuttered in November 1942 after 81 years of its existence.

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