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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.

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Yet the palace strong-arm appeared to backfire. As Renaud Revel, a prominent columnist for L'Express put it, “to tell the Le Monde boss what he had to do, as in the old days of [presidents Jaques] Chirac, [François] Mitterrand and [Valery] Giscard d’Estaing … there was no better way to support the BNP trio.”

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Sarkozy's media-tycoon friends

Sarkozy’s attempt to influence the Le Monde sale, unrelated to state government, adds to an ongoing perception of a president micromanaging public perceptions through a close set of media-tycoon friends. Some call it a “Berlusconization” of the French media, a reference to the Italian president Silvio Berlusconi, whose powerful media holdings have helped his political ambitions. Sarkozy’s media influence runs more through close associates and formidable media-owning friends.

Sarkozy calls his “best friend” Martin Bouygues, owner of France’s No. 1 TV network TF1 along with mega-construction and mobile phone firms. Another close friend, Arnaud Lagardère, owns a military rocket firm, is a large shareholder in EADS, just purchased Time Warner books, and owns the Hachette Book Group as well the No. 2 media conglomerate in France, including 37 percent interest in Le Monde. Two years ago Le Monde beat back an effort by Mr. Lagardère to gain majority control.

Another close Sarkozy advisor, Alain Minc, is a powerbroker and former chair of Le Monde’s board, and also carries heft in the French media.

Le Monde showed 'healthy independence'

So it is not surprising that a trio of wealthy opposition figures were looked upon favorably by Le Monde staffers – as the “who will own Le Monde?” drama unfolded.

Elsa Vidal, who directs the Europe desk at the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières, a global monitor of press freedom, says the Le Monde outcome shows some healthy independence. “… despite alarming signals, where political figures in France are more and more attempting to bend and influence newspapers, radio, and the Internet, there is still some strength left in the press, to find its own way,” she said.