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.
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.
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.”
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.