France's ailing Le Monde newspaper seeks saviour
Le Monde, France's most prestigious newspaper, may soon end up in foreign hands if it finds a saviour willing to pay off its crippling debt but let it keep its cherished editorial independence.
The newspaper's journalists were given a controlling ownership stake -- and the right to sack the editor -- when the daily was founded by Hubert Beuve-Mery in 1944 after the occupying Germans were driven out of Paris.
Beuve-Mery wanted to set up a fiercely independent daily untainted like other French newspapers by collaboration with Nazism.
But that autonomy is likely to end this month when Le Monde group hopes to sell a majority stake to a new -- and possibly foreign -- owner who will be able to pay off its 100-million-euro (120-million-dollar) debt.
Falling advertising revenues, dwindling circulation, the challenge of the Internet and the economic downturn have left Le Monde, like many of the world's newspapers, struggling to survive.
But its publisher Eric Fottorino struck a confident note in a front-page letter to readers last week that said "a page of the daily's history is about to turn" that will leave the paper ready to stride boldly into the future.
Fottorino said five bidders -- three of them foreign -- had declared an interest in taking control of the high-brow paper that hits the news-stands in the early afternoon.
He named them as France's Nouvel Observateur group; Prisa, the owner of Spain's El Pais daily; Ringier, the publisher of Switzerland's Le Temps; and a trio of investors that includes Pierre Berge, the former partner of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
Fottorino did not name the fifth bidder but on Tuesday Le Monde executives were in Milan for talks with the Italian press group L'Espresso.
The field was reduced to four when Ringier pulled out Tuesday, complaining that the mid-June deadline was too tight for the necessary in-depth examination of Le Monde's accounts.
The rush to find a financial saviour was also criticised Tuesday by Le Monde's journalists' association, currently the main shareholder, which said the deadline to find a new partner was "unrealistic and untenable."
Bidders are expected to deliver their initial offers by Wednesday and their definitive bids by Friday.
Fottorino wrote that whichever bidder is picked, he will insist on a "guarantee that the new shareholder will not intervene ... in the content of our titles."
Editorial freedom is "the number one concern" for journalists at the newspaper, who see it as the "raison d'etre" of the left-of-centre daily, said one Le Monde reporter who asked not to be named.
Getting paid is another major worry, she added.
"When you hear everybody saying that if a financial solution is not found our salaries will not be guaranteed, then obviously you have got to hope that the crisis be sorted out in one way or another," she said.
Today around 280 journalists work for the daily, which has a circulation of about 290,000.
The group formed by Pierre Berge includes banker Matthieu Pigasse, who recently bought the trendy culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles, and the telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel.
They last week wrote an open letter saying if their bid is successful, "we plan to serve Le Monde and not to use it to serve us."
The other French candidate, the Nouvel Observateur group, also said it wants Le Monde to carry on doing what it has been doing since its creation.
The plan is to "build a left-of-centre press group that is powerful and independent of all influence: the government, political parties, the CAC 40 (Paris stock market), banks," said publisher Denis Olivennes.
French media giant Lagardere has a 17-percent stake in Le Monde but Fottorino said it was not seeking to increase its holding.
Prisa owns 15 percent of Le Monde group, which as well as the daily has a stable of magazines.
© 2010 AFP