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?by Tim King / July 26, 2010 / Leave a comment
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Le Monde‘s readership problems are aggravated by an over-staffed, outdated printing plant, archaic labour policies and substantial debt caused by an ill-advised acquisitions policy.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…