Le Monde to hold talks with team seeking to buy the French newspaper

By Alfred De Montesquiou, AP
Monday, June 28, 2010

Le Monde to discuss takeover with bidders

PARIS — Le Monde said Monday it would hold talks with a team of three businessmen seeking a controlling stake of the iconic but cash-strapped French newspaper, a move that would end the financial control that its journalists now have over it.

Le Monde’s supervisory board gave the go-ahead for three months of exclusive negotiations with a consortium made up of Internet billionaire Xavier Niel, Lazard banker Matthieu Pigasse, and Pierre Berge, an arts patron and longtime partner of the late designer Yves Saint-Laurent, according to a statement from the paper.

Le Monde says it needs help to pay off debts and survive punishing times in the media industry, and it is looking for an estimated euro100 million ($124 million) capital increase.

In the meantime, to help the struggling paper through the summer, the trio of bidders pledged to provide a loan of euro10 million by July 5, the paper’s statement said.

Another bidder, a group that includes the owner of Spain’s El Pais and France’s former state telecoms monopoly, said hours before the meeting that it was pulling out.

France’s telecoms giant, Orange, which made a joint bid with the French Nouvel Observateur magazine and the Spanish group Prisa, owner of El Pais, said the group would not maintain its offer after a journalists’ committee that oversees strategic choices at the paper favored the other bid by 90 percent.

The business trio whose bid was backed by the supervisory board is known by the acronyms of the three men’s surnames: BNP. Details of the terms were not immediately available.

The journalists had said in a statement Friday they favored the trio’s bid because it was “the most coherent proposition.”

The statement said the bidders had pledged to allow journalists to keep a minority veto voting right on the board — which should guarantee the newspaper’s editorial independence.

Still, Le Monde’s takeover “marks the end of an era,” said Thierry Dussard, a media management professor at Sciences Po, the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

“Reality and capitalism have now caught up with the French press,” said Dussard, who described Le Monde as “the last dinosaur” where journalists ran their newspaper regardless of capital ownership or profits. “It’s the swan song for the journalists’ independence,” he said.

To date, the Le Monde holding has been controlled by an odd blend of internal shareholders, mainly journalists, and minority outsiders with decreased voting rights.

French media reported that conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to weigh in on Le Monde’s takeover, favoring the bid led by Orange, in which the French state maintains a majority stake. Critics accused him of meddling with the media to find a more docile owner for Le Monde, which has a strong history of independence, before 2012 presidential elections.

Dussard said the choice of the journalists’ committee was “a clear anti-Sarkozy reaction,” because a deal with the Internet giant could have benefited Le Monde and its website.

Founded in 1944 after much of the French press had been discredited for collaborating with the Nazis who occupied France during World War II, the center-left Le Monde has been controlled by its journalists for decades. But a series of hazardous business ventures and long-declining readership and advertising revenue have left the daily struggling for cash.

Le Monde’s readership is slightly smaller than center-right rival Le Figaro, with 318,000 copies sold daily on average in 2009, according to the OJD media monitoring association.

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