In rocket scientist parlance, escape velocity is the speed needed to break free from Earth’s gravitational field. Last Friday, by an overwhelming majority, Le Monde’s staff voted to escape the black hole of French politics — or, at least, to give their paper the best chance to do so.
Disassembling the utterly complex chain of ownership control at Le Monde would take most of this column. Let’s just say the newsroom, which historically controlled 22% of the company, gave a resounding 90% vote for a triumvirate including the head of Lazard France, Matthieu Pigasse (41); the co-founder of Yves-Saint-Laurent, Pierre Bergé (80); and Xavier Niel (43), the founder of Free, France’s largest non state-related telecommunication company. Together, the investment banker, the philanthropist, and the telco maverick are likely to become the main shareholders of the most prestigious French newspaper — one that is facing a severe cash crisis (see last wee Note Le Monde on the Brink). The journalist’s choice was supported by most constituencies in a position to influence the group’s fate. Only one voting body chose the other bid; technically it can trigger a deadlock for the ultimate vote at the board level, scheduled for this Monday; this is a highly unlikely scenario, one that would immediately lead to a bankruptcy filing.
Two years ago, such choice would have ben unthinkable. On paper, the other bid, led by Claude Perdriel — owner of the left-leaning newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur —, supported by the Spanish group Prisa and by France Telecom-Orange, would have got the prize. But their offer got mired in politics, and Le Monde’s staff reacted strongly against it.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s involvement doomed the Perdriel bids. When he summoned Le Monde’s current CEO, Eric Fottorino, to warn him, it felt like George Bush telling the New York Times’CEO: “You have two choices, here is my preference, be careful.” For any journalist, this type of ultimatum is the perfect repellent. Especially when, hoping to influence the decision, the executive branch pushes every lever.
To understand how it works, here, you have to keep in mind how the executive branch keeps the French medias under the tightest possible leash. When a government-friendly columnist is unhappy about his employer, he calls Sarkozy’s chief of staff (nicknamed the vice-president) who, in turn, calls the head of the broadcast network to express his concern. It always works like a dream, especially when the CEO of a network (radio or TV) is a government appointee or, for a private company, when the main shareholder is a FON — Friend Of Nicolas). More