Tycoon trio to take control of France's Le Monde
A French internet billionaire who started out in porn, a patron of the arts and a flamboyant banker looked set 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 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 running to buy a paper that was founded when the Nazis were chased out of 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.
A senior journalist at the paper, who asked not be named, said Le Monde staff were on the whole happy at the outcome and believed that the trio would honour their promise not to interfere editorially.
"I tend to believe what Berge and the others said, that this is the last independent paper in France and they want to keep it that way," he told AFP.
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 summoned the publisher of the daily, Eric Fottorino.
The right-wing president told him 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 supporters of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund who is seen as a likely rival to Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential elections.
Berge also helped finance the Socialist Segolene Royal when she ran against Sarkozy in the 2007 election.
Niel, who funds two left-wing investigative French news websites, began his entrepreneurial career with the launch of a sexual chatline 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 he did not want a "peep-show" boss running France's most respected daily.
The involvement of France Telecom, which is partly owned by the French state, in the takeover bid sparked controversy because it came after the intervention by Sarkozy.
But the firm's chief executive denied he had entered the bidding 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.
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.
They say they hope to integrate the newspaper and website operations, which are currently editorially separate.
The rival consortium that pulled out on Monday also included the Spanish newspaper group Prisa, and the owner of the centre-left French news magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur.
Today about 280 journalists work for Le Monde, which has a circulation of about 300,000.
© 2010 AFP