Xavier Niel is on track to have placed more than 40 per cent of Le Monde in a foundation by the end of the year, the newspaper’s chief executive has said days after the billionaire bought out Czech energy tycoon Daniel Křetínský’s stake in France’s biggest national daily.
Louis Dreyfus, brought in as Le Monde Group’s chief executive by Niel and his co-investors in 2010, said the governance reform — aimed at preventing takeovers and protecting editorial interference — was needed to guarantee to readers that reliance on a wealthy owner would not compromise the title’s coverage.
“There is a general distrust of institutions and the powerful . . . it is not just the billionaire” media owners, Dreyfus told the Financial Times. “We need to reassure our readers that not only is our development happening — and we needed significant shareholders to transform the economic model — but that it is being carried out in complete independence.”
The Financial Times reported at the weekend that Niel had bought Křetínský’s shares for roughly €50mn, ending a period of newsroom unease sparked by the energy tycoon’s unexpected acquisition of his stake in 2018. Křetínský acknowledged the situation was not working in an interview with the FT.
Jérôme Fenoglio, Le Monde’s editorial director, said the newsroom welcomed the departure of Křetínský and called Niel’s plan to put his stake in the foundation “good news”.
Speaking about Křetínský, he said: “If we start off on a bad basis with a shareholder, someone who . . . didn’t tell us their intentions until they were already in our capital, how do you build trust? It didn’t work from the start.”
Křetínský’s exit and the transfer of an increasing number of shares into the foundation means “it will no longer be possible to have to endure an arrival that we do not want in our capital,” Fenoglio added.
The issue of media independence is acute in France where major outlets including the biggest private broadcaster TF1, newspaper Le Figaro and news channel BFM are owned by billionaire industrialists who control some of France’s biggest companies.
Most recently, conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré sparked a revolt at Journal du Dimanche with the nomination of a far-right editor, and LVMH’s Bernard Arnault was accused by the staff of business daily Les Echos of removing their editor.
Founded in 1944 at the request of Charles de Gaulle after the liberation of Paris, Le Monde is now France’s biggest national daily newspaper with about 580,000 subscribers in print and digital.
For decades it was largely run by its journalists, with some outside investors including Spanish media group Prisa. But in 2010, saddled by high debts and stuck with structural losses as the industry was convulsed by the digital transition, it faced severe financial problems and needed a rescue.
Niel, businessman Pierre Bergé (who has since died), and investment banker Matthieu Pigasse stepped in and pledged €110mn to recapitalise of the business.
They also made a series of promises on governance and created a “pole of independence” group that represented Le Monde’s journalists, staff and readers, who between them own 25.4 per cent of the company.
Niel later declared his intention to create a permanent foundation to house his stake and transferred his shares to the structure. The foundation acts as a protective shield because once the shares are in it they no longer belong to Niel and cannot be sold.
“My opinions do not count, I want the newsroom to be as independent as possible,” Niel told the FT. “We created the entire structure to prevent any possibility of interference, and Le Monde journalists have tested it regularly with articles about me that were not particularly kind. But that’s the game.”
Speaking last year at Senate hearings on media ownership, Niel said the success of the outlets he owned was conditional on their independence.
“I believe we need freedom of the press,” he said. “This does not always exist in France. A certain number of media outlets have an editorial line which tends to serve the economic or financial interests of their shareholders. That’s their choice [but] that is not my view of the media.”
Dreyfus expects the process of moving stock to the foundation to accelerate until it holds just over 70 per cent of the shares, but this is dependent on the resolution of a legal dispute with Bergé’s estate and the committing of Prisa’s shares.
To critics who still worry that Niel or his co-investors could interfere, Dreyfus points to their record since they arrived in 2010.
“Do not judge them based on their words, but on their actions in the past 13 years,” Dreyfus said. “We said that we would strengthen the editorial staff . . . There are almost twice as many journalists and they have a lot more power today.”
The business is also on stronger footing, he argued, adding that the trio had upped their financial investment to €150mn. “We said the newspaper would be profitable, and it is . . . We kept our promises,” he said.
Digital now account for the vast majority of subscriptions. The newsroom, staffed by 540 journalists, has added podcasts, video and a weekend magazine. Le Monde is also expanding its English offering to target a 15 per cent share of digital subscribers from outside France in five years.
Fenoglio said he appreciated that Le Monde had managed to make progress both in the business and in governance, and that his editorship had been spared the strife at other outlets with more controlling owners.
“I’ve been doing this job for over eight years, not once have I had the slightest problem with the slightest intervention on anything,” he said. “We have absolute security and freedom.”
“I don’t know if it is replicable, but in our story at least it has been possible for private capital to save a newspaper and strengthen its independence at the same time.”