Tycoon trio set to take control of France's Le Monde

28th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

A French Internet billionaire who began in porn, a patron of the arts and a flamboyant banker looked set on Monday to take over Le Monde newspaper despite President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to stop them.

The world's leading French-language newspaper has been struggling to survive in the internet age and put out a call to investors willing to buy into the loss-making daily and pay off its debt of around 100 million euros.

Several bidders -- including a Russian billionaire -- joined the race to take over what for the moment is probably more of a status symbol than a viable money-making business.

But by Monday, after France Telecom subsidiary Orange and an allied press group withdrew their bid, only one consortium was left in the race to buy a paper that was founded as the Nazis retreated from Paris in 1944.

The unlikely threesome includes Pierre Berge, the super-rich arts patron and partner of the late fashion guru Yves Saint-Laurent, Lazard banker Matthieu Pigasse, and Xavier Niel, an internet tycoon who first made his money in porn.

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.

The left-of-centre daily's search for fresh capital turned political earlier this month when Sarkozy stepped in and met 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.

Berge helped finance Segolene Royal when she ran against Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential election.

Niel, who funds two left-wing investigative French news websites, began his entrepreneurial career with the launch of a sexual contact service on Minitel, a French fore-runner to the internet.

He later moved into sex shops and went on to make a huge fortune with his internet and phone companies Free and Iliad. He was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2006 for embezzlement.

Sarkozy reportedly told Le Monde's Fottorino that he did not want a "peep-show" boss running France's most respected daily.

The involvement of France Telecom, partly owned by the French state, in a Le Monde takevoer bid sparked controversy because it came after intervention by Sarkozy.

But the firm's chief executive denied intervening at the president's request.

If the Berge-Pigasse-Niel bid is approved on 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 that was not tainted, as many other French newspapers were, 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 about 280 journalists work for Le Monde, which has a circulation of about 320,000.

© 2010 AFP

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