EUROPE : It's a Whole New World for Le Monde : France's grayest daily debuts its updated look with a splash of color. Face-lift is a sign of newspapers' precarious health.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For months now, Le Monde, the most serious, thorough and, it must be said, grayest of France's daily newspapers, had been promising its readers a new look.

And there it was this week, on the front page of the 15,538th edition.

Color.

Not colors, mind you. Just one color--red--in an otherwise black-and-white drawing of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and a bloody Chechen combatant, a splash of color small enough to hide beneath a coffee cup.

Subtle as it was, the addition to Le Monde's front page heralded important changes in the respected French institution, founded 50 years ago after France's liberation from German occupation.

And, perhaps more significantly, the decision to fiddle with the venerable Le Monde was a sign of the precarious health of French daily newspapers, suffering from drops in circulation and advertising.

"Le Monde still wants to be an independent journal and newspaper of reference . . . to prove anew each day the irreplaceable dimension of the written word," Editor Jean-Marie Colombani told his readers in a front-page editorial, written in the grand style with which the paper's devotees are familiar.

But he added that he hoped the new layout, including some color and a cleaner typeface, as well as better writing, will "respond better to the expectations of our readers, especially those who read us only occasionally. We want to give them a reason to read us every day."

The editor has called the changes "the most radical known by the newspaper since it was founded," and they include a plan to "rearm the paper intellectually as well as economically."

Certainly, the stakes are high for Le Monde.

Without a doubt, it is the most self-consciously independent newspaper in France. It is partly owned by its more than 200 journalists, who have the power to elect their editor. And their overriding fear is that the paper will sell its independent soul for worldly profits.

Long gone are the days when the editors could declare, as founder Huburt Beuve-Mery did: "We are poor, and we intend to remain that way." Today, Le Monde's independence is threatened by the bottom line: It lost more than $8 million last year.

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Those economic woes are shared by most newspapers in France. Newsprint costs are rising sharply this year, and, at the same time, advertisers are spending more of their money on television. At Le Monde, ad revenue, as a percentage of total income, has fallen to 21% from 50% in just three years.

Meanwhile, the French are getting more of their daily news from television. And when they want in-depth looks at issues, they are turning to colorful, flourishing weekly magazines.

Daily newspaper circulation has dived in Paris, to 3.2 million from 4.2 million two decades ago. And fewer than 1 million people, in this country of 58 million, buy even one of the three major dailies.

Le Monde's circulation peaked at 440,000 in 1980 but has fallen to about 350,000. The paper proudly points out that studies show it is often passed around and, as a result, is read by 2 million people daily. But it needs more readers willing to pay the daily cover price of 7 francs, or about $1.50.

Le Monde, the only serious afternoon newspaper in Paris, is the second-largest general interest daily in the nation, behind Le Figaro, with a circulation of 390,000, and ahead of Liberation, with 170,000.

For all its promise of change, Le Monde remains, on the surface at least, pretty much the way it was. A few curls in the flag at the top of the front page have been erased, the general layout is easier on the eyes, and a new cultural magazine will debut in March. But the number of pages remains the same, there still are no photographs in the main news section, and the paper has kept its unusual format--a cross between a tabloid and a broadsheet.

The strength of Le Monde--as its name, the World, implies--has long been its well-reasoned articles on foreign affairs, as well as its coverage of cultural, political and economic issues in France.

Although it has been criticized for its long, sometimes boring articles, French elite regard Le Monde as an institution, like the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower.

"Our difficulty was to try not to frighten our hard-core, rather conservative readers," Colombani said, while increasing appeal to occasional readers.

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