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Le Monde rejects Sarkozy intervention in media sale

A battle for control of the ailing French newspaper Le Monde is over. A business group favored by French President Nicolas Sarkozy withdrew its bid after journalists on the newspaper voted against it.

By Staff writer / June 28, 2010

A view shows an edition of the daily Le Monde in the Le Monde office in Paris Friday. The French newspaper was approved for sale today, ending a drama over two symbolic bid-groups, the loser of which was personally backed by President Nicolas Sarkozy

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

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Paris

Le Monde – a newspaper so established in France it is sometimes called "the record” – was approved for sale today, ending a drama over two symbolic bid-groups, the loser of which was personally backed by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

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The sale of Le Monde increasingly became seen as a left-right political fight over media control in an era when Mr. Sarkozy’s closest friends run several of the top media groups in France. And the ownership controversy took place within the context of the coming 2012 presidential elections.

Earlier today the Sarkozy-favored group withdrew after 90 percent of the paper’s journalists – outraged over Mr. Sarkozy's intervention – voted against that bid, citing problems of editorial independence.

The new trio of owners, approved by a narrow 11 of 20 votes by the Le Monde board, all have close ties to the opposition Socialist Party. They include Pierre Berge, a wealthy industrialist, gay-rights activist, and long-time partner of the late fashion tycoon Yves St. Laurent; Matthieu Pigasse, a pop-music magazine owner and banker; and billionaire telecom maven Xavier Niel, who started his fortune in soft porn and has ties to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, current International Monetary Fund chief and a likely opponent of Sarkozy in 2012.

Known as BNP for their last initials, the new owners promised to maintain editorial independence and to give Le Monde’s formal journalists association veto powers. Withdrawing were investors grouped around France Telcom, Nouvel Observateur, and the Spanish media concern, Prisa.

Le Monde unable to afford July payroll

Le Monde, an afternoon daily, has been in deep crisis; running huge deficits, unable to afford the July payroll, and seeking nearly $130 million in recapitalization.

The newspaper was founded in 1944 by a group of French resistance leaders after Nazi liberation. Its bias is slightly left of center, and it is regarded as the main French paper of record. Its staff of 281 controls business decisions – even as the paper has widely been seen as losing revenues and readers. In the mid-80s, Le Monde shifted from a “cooperative” to a shareholder system, and began advocating more free-market value. Its Internet and print operations have been run separately, but are now expected to be combined.

Still, under any new owners, the staff is expected to lose much financial control, one reason journalists went apoplectic over Sarkozy’s open backing of a buyer two weeks ago. The French president called Le Monde editor Eric Fottorino to the palace to inform him of his preference for France Telcom and Nouvel Observateur. Sarkozy reportedly also warned that public funds may be withheld from renovating a printing press – and he objected to an adult “peep show” entrepreneur as a part-owner of the storied paper.

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