France's struggling Le Monde newspaper seeks saviour
Le Monde, France's most prestigious newspaper, may soon end up in foreign hands as it seeks a saviour willing to resolve its crippling financial crisis and let it keep its cherished editorial independence.
The paper'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 paper that hits the news-stands in the early afternoon.
They are 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 reports said Italian group L'Espresso, owner of la Repubblica daily, had expressed interest in Le Monde group, which as well as the daily has a stable of magazines.
"This operation is expected to result by mid-June in the choice of a new partner who, alone or along with other investors, will take a majority share in our group's capital," Fottorino wrote.
But he said 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 paper, 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.
Two years ago the paper went through a cost-cutting exercise that saw the departure of 130 staff, including 70 journalists, which led to the second strike in the paper's history.
Today around 280 journalists work for the daily, which has a circulation of about 290,000.
The potential bidding group formed by Pierre Berge includes banker Matthieu Pigasse, who recently bought the trendy cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles, and the telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel.
They on Thursday wrote an open letter saying that 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, has also said that 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 Nouvel Observateur publisher Denis Olivennes.
French media giant Lagardere has a 17 percent stake in Le Monde group but Fottorino said it was not seeking to increase its holding in the paper.
Prisa owns 15 percent of Le Monde group.
© 2010 AFP