"Tell me what you read and I'll tell you who you are," Eric de Rugy, the chief executive of Mediaedge:cia in France, says. "That's just as true in Paris as it is in London."
De Rugy lives in arty Montmartre, the heart of Amelie country, where of a morning the cafe terraces are packed with well-heeled "bobos" (bourgeois bohemians). At the weekend, they are likely to be leafing through Le Nouvel Observateur, affectionately known as L'Obs, a weekly news magazine that has been serving the left-wing intelligentsia for nearly 40 years. News magazines are extremely popular in France, and each one serves a different group of readers, many of whom are fiercely loyal to their chosen brand.
So why have news magazines worked so well in France? De Rugy comments: "I think it is partly to do with the French character, which tends to be discursive and analytical. The news magazine has always been seen as a forum for debate. In the old days, that's where you'd find writing by the likes of Camus and Sartre. Newspapers are seen more as a source of practical, everyday information."
But there are less philosophical reasons, too. The French have always preferred local newspapers to national dailies, using the news magazines to get a broader view at the end of the week. And in the early 60s - when national dailies such as France Soir could still sell more than one million copies - the 8pm TV news slot began stealing their readers. Not only that, but the high cost of distributing newspapers - thanks to an extremely strong union - makes them pricey items. Why pay more than one euro for a newspaper every day when you can get a thick wodge of L'Express for just three euros a week?
The upshot of this is that France's leading daily newspaper, Le Monde, sells only 361,000 copies a day, while the combined circulation of the news weeklies is almost two million. The Government's recent decision to let newspapers advertise on television for the first time next year is unlikely to change anything, as the news magazines will be right beside them.
The main titles are Le Nouvel Observateur, which leads in terms of sales, followed by L'Express and Le Point. Paris Match, which outsells all of them, must be put in a slightly different bracket because it combines news with celebrity gossip and glossy photography.
L'Express, which celebrated its 50th anniversary at the end of May, is generally credited with having started the news magazine phenomenon. It began life as a weekly newspaper but in 1964, directly inspired by Time and Der Spiegel, it re-launched in the now-familiar magazine format. These days it is seen as the read of the active, fortysomething post-yuppie.
Its president and editorial director, the genial and sharply intelligent Denis Jeambar, comments: "While the British are probably the world's leading consumers of newspapers, the French are almost certainly the world's leading magazine readers. Over the past 40 years, interest in newspapers has been severely eroded. And unlike in the UK, they did not solve this problem early on by introducing magazine supplements."
Not that the news magazines have had it easy. Jeambar admits that an advertising crisis "without precedent" has forced him to make changes.
"By and large I have tried to keep them invisible, by changing the paper weight and taking the pagination down. At the same time, we have tweaked the design and added new sections. We're in the bizarre situation of trying to move forward while reducing costs."
Each of the magazines has a survival strategy. Le Point - the title of the older, more conservative management class - has suffered from a drop in telecommunications and technology advertisers. On the other hand, according to its head of sales, Sophie Gaurnay, it is the only magazine to attract a large number of wine advertisers. "The magazine has a famous wine writer, Jacques Dupont, and because of that we have a specialist niche. Our readership means we also do very well with banking and insurance clients," she says.
Meanwhile, back at Le Nouvel Observateur, the head of sales, Thierry Daure, says the magazine attracts more perfume and cosmetics advertisers than its rivals. "Our readership is trendier, and we have more female readers," he says. "We position ourselves as an observer of trends in society."
All the magazines, however, attract car advertisers. Laurence Courbin, the advertising director of Mercedes in France, explains: "These magazines are extremely important for us. They have fairly large circulations, and an elite readership. They attract people who are intelligent opinion-leaders with high incomes, and this isn't a traditionally easy group to reach through the mass media. News magazines give us an ongoing relationship with them."
Courbin adds that the magazines have become more attractive as they have broadened in scope. "Now it's not so much of a pure news environment. They all have sections devoted to the cinema, to restaurants, and to art, so they stay in readers' hands longer."
The only disadvantage is that, for a car advertiser, there is no way of picking and choosing. "Each of the magazines has its specialist audience, but all these groups are interesting to us. So we advertise in all the magazines," he says.
FOUR OF THE BIGGEST NEWS WEEKLIES IN FRANCE
Owner Hachette Filipacchi
Circulation 2002 613, 823 (- 2.14 per cent)
Typical advertisers BMW, Mercedes, Canon, Olympus, Lancome
Reader profile Somewhere between 30 and 50, often female, intelligent,
wealthy, aspires to high society
Content Hello!-style celebrity gossip, paparazzi photographs, reportage,
LE NOUVEL OBSERVATEUR
Owner Groupe Nouvel Observateur (Claude Perdriel)
Circulation 2002 511,631 (+ 0.35 per cent)
Typical advertisers Renault, Mercedes, Yves Saint-Laurent, Chanel,
Reader profile Fashionable, lefty thirtysomethings, both male and female
Content Trends in society, lifestyle and politics, plus entertainment
and TV supplements. Its In and Out and 100 Fashionable Venues editions
are very popular
Circulation 2002 431,605 (+ 0.48 per cent)
Typical advertisers Mercedes, Roche Bobois (furniture), Omega, Volvic
Reader profile Thirty-to-fortysomething businessmen, rich,
well-travelled and intellectually curious
Content News analysis, politics, culture, media, plus glossy lifestyle
magazine featuring restaurants, cinema, music and exhibitions
Circulation 2002 337,024 (+ 2.42 per cent)
Typical advertisers Mercedes, Rover, MasterCard, Vins de Bordeaux
Reader profile Largely male, conservative, intellectual, establishment
Content News analysis, politics, economics and culture.