The battle for ownership of France’s state-subsidised paper of record has dealt a blow to Sarkozy. Could this be a turning point for French politics?
Le Monde is France’s “journal de reference,” where you go not for news but for an opinion on the news: profound reflections in weighty prose. But, like the printed press everywhere, it’s losing readers fast, from 406,000 nine years ago to 288,000 last year. Earlier this year offers were invited to bail it out, and a battle for the privilege of pouring yet more millions into the ailing newspaper, which is 26 per cent state-owned, has ensued.
Now, with the backing of Le Monde‘s staff, new investors are lined up. They include the former partner of couturier Yves Saint Laurent; an internet entrepreneur with a reputation for sleaze; and a wealthy investment banker. The story of how they got there—one involving antiquated labour practices, Paris’s power-hungry nouveau riche and intrigue at the highest levels of political power—is an important, if depressing, illustration of the state of France today.
Le Monde‘s readership problems are aggravated by an over-staffed, outdated printing plant, archaic labour policies and substantial debt caused by an ill-advised acquisitions policy. A two-year loan dragged the paper out of trouble in March 2009, granted on the condition that the paper restructure its finance before March 2011. Even more urgently, €10m had to be found to pay staff this summer.
The first bidders were foreign media groups: Italian, Swiss and Spanish. However, the real debt was far greater than they had been led to believe. On discovering Le Monde‘s quirky decision-making system and the government’s insistence of €466,000 compensation for every laid-off under-employed printer, they rapidly withdrew.
The second line of would-be investors was more interesting. They consisted of two rival, mainly French consortia known as POP and BNP. The driving force behind POP was Stephane Richard, the young head of France Telecom. Only two months before the bid, Richard had been running the minister of finance’s office. With him was 84 year-old Claude Perdriel, whose first fortune came from adult services on Minitel, France’s eccentric precursor to the internet. He is now owner of a glossy weekly current affairs magazine.
The credentials of the BNP consortium, which was picked by Le Monde‘s staff in June, were even less likely. One member is Pierre Berge, an outspoken 80 year-old campaigner for gay rights, co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent Couture House, the lifelong business partner (and former lover) of its eponymous couturier, and founding member of Pink TV. Another is Xavier Niel, a 43 year-old maverick businessman, who also made a first fortune out of erotically-orientated Minitel sites, then Parisian peep-shows and finally an internet provider, Free. The anti-establishment Niel now uses his money to finance an investigative news website called Mediapart. Finally, there is Matthieu Pigasse, 42, vice-chairman of Lazard bank. While all three are socialists, they made their fortunes in the new economy and are part of the small, incestuous world of the capital’s ambitious new millionaires, helping yet hating each other, doing deals while bitching about their business partners behind their backs.
But none of this would have been more than a spat in a Parisian teacup had not President Sarkozy interfered with stunning clumsiness. Le Monde‘s staff have a right of veto over ownership and Sarkozy did not want them to choose the BNP. He used what he called Xavier Niel’s “peep-show man” past as a convenient smokescreen, but BNP’s ties with the Socialist party are what the president really objects to. Pierre Berge finances Segolene Royal, potential Socialist candidate in the next presidential election. Matthieu Pigasse is close to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF: by far the most popular politician in France and another potential socialist presidential candidate. He expects to be minister of finance in the next Socialist government. In their hands, Sarkozy fears Le Monde will be a socialist flagship during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Sarkozy’s objections to the BNP bid are obvious, but his preference for the rival POP is also motivated by his desire to control the paper’s content, given its state subsidy. So the president has threatened to pull the government funding if Le Monde opts for the BNP consortium. As an isolated incident it might have gone unnoticed, but Sarkozy’s interfering with the media is now becoming a habit. He is acting as though he suddenly has the right to prevent the press giving anyone else the enormous leg-up to power they gave him.
Indeed, the press freedom versus “responsible reporting” debate is a hot issue in France at the moment. Two ministers lost their jobs in June after newspaper revelations of abuses of power. In early July, the news website partly financed by Xavier Niel of the BNP consortium aimed for a third: the minister of work, solidarity and public services, Eric Woerth. As treasurer of the ruling UMP party, Woerth is alleged to have accepted illegally large cash donations from L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt to fund Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.
The BNP has until September to devise a way of recapitalising the paper: a way acceptable not only to a bank but also to the staff, who exercise a notoriously conservative veto. But finance is only part of the answer. More important, and more difficult, will be finding a way to make Le Monde relevant in France’s evolving society.