Tycoon trio set to take control of France's Le Monde
President Nicolas Sarkozy sought to block them but a trio of investors, including the partner of the late fashion guru Yves Saint-Laurent, looked certain on Monday to take over France's Le Monde newspaper.
The unlikely threesome is made up of Saint-Laurent's partner and arts patron Pierre Berge, Lazard banker Matthieu Pigasse, and Xavier Niel, an internet billionaire who initially made his money in porn.
Their probable success comes after France Telecom subsidiary Orange and an allied press group withdrew their bid, leaving the trio as the only consortium left in the race to take control of the struggling left-of-centre daily.
Orange pulled out after Le Monde's journalists' association, the main shareholder, voted on Friday in favour of the trio, whose offer will be decided on later Monday when the paper's supervisory board meets.
Le Monde, like many of the world's newspapers, has been struggling to survive due to falling advertising revenues, dwindling circulation, the challenge of new media and the economic downturn.
The internationally respected daily is being crushed by a mountain of debt and put out a call to investors capable of injecting between 80 and 120 million euros (100 to 150 million dollars) to come to its aid.
The search for fresh capital turned political earlier this month when Sarkozy stepped in and met with the publisher of the daily, Eric Fottorino.
The right-wing president told Fottorino he opposed the Berge-Pigasse-Niel bid because of their ties to France's left-wing opposition, drawing accusations from the Socialist Party that Sarkozy was threatening press freedom.
Pigasse and Berge are both backers of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund who is seen as a likely rival to Sarkozy in the next presidential elections due in 2012.
The involvement of France Telecom, partly owned by the French state, in a Le Monde takevoer bid sparked controversy because it came after Sarkozy's intervention.
But the firm's chief executive denied intervening at the president's request.
If the Berge-Pigasse-Niel bid is approved Monday as expected, the investors will be required to stump up an initial 10 million euros without which the paper may not be able to pay its journalists' salaries in the coming months.
The trio will then enter into exclusive negotiations for the group's titles, which include the daily and several magazines.
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.
Berge, Pigasse and Niel promised to let the paper's editors maintain full editorial independence and let the journalists' association keep its right to veto major decisions.
Today around 280 journalists work for Le Monde, which has a circulation of about 320,000.
© 2010 AFP