France's Le Monde Seeks a Buyer
By Max Colchester/Wall Street Journal
PARIS — The management of French daily newspaper Le Monde said Thursday it wanted to sell a majority stake in the company, ending nearly 60 years of journalist control.
Le Monde was founded in 1944 on the principles of political and economic independence, and its journalists control a majority stake in publishing company Le Monde SA through a complex shareholding structure. They have the power to dismiss the editor-in-chief and the publisher.
Amid falling circulation and ad revenues, Le Monde last year borrowed €25 million ($30.6 million) to finance its operations. Between 2012 and 2014 it must repay a further debt of €69 million, the newspaper's publisher, Eric Fottorino, wrote in a front-page editorial. The newspaper recently axed 130 staffers.
"A page in the newspaper's history is about to turn," Mr. Fottorino wrote. "Since 1951 the independence of the newspaper has stemmed from journalists' control of its management and editorial line."
Mr. Fottorino said investors were being invited to take a majority stake in the group by mid-June. Lazard banker Matthieu Pigasse, Xavier Niel, the billionaire founder of telecommunications group Iliad SA, and Pierre Bergé, partner of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, had expressed interest in investing, he wrote.
However, French media and defense conglomerate Lagardere SCA, which owns 17% of Le Monde's publishing company and 34% of Le Monde's website, has said it won't invest further in the company.
The quest to find investors in Le Monde comes two weeks after French media baron Alain Weill gave away a 78% stake in French business daily La Tribune to its managing director for €1, plunging the paper's future into question.
Le Monde is particularly vulnerable to a downturn because, unlike most other French national dailies, it isn't owned by a large business group. Serge Dassault, owner of business-jet and combat-aircraft maker Dassault Aviation SA, controls Le Figaro, the country's biggest daily paper by circulation. Bernard Arnault, chief executive of luxury group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, bought the country's leading business daily, Les Echos, in 2007.
In his editorial Mr. Fottorino stated that the publishers of the paper would require potential investors to guarantee the paper's independence.