France’s Le Monde shareholders sign independence peace pact

Paris: The two main shareholders of French daily Le Monde have agreed a deal aimed at ensuring the paper’s editorial independence, ending months of turmoil after a Czech billionaire bought a stake in the centre-left paper of record.

French telecoms magnate Xavier Niel and investment banker Matthieu Pigasse signed accords with Le Monde’s so-called “pole d’independance”, an independent structure that groups together staffers, readers and minority shareholders, they wrote in a message to journalists late Monday.

Crucially the agreement gives the pole d’independance a veto right over any change of shareholder control.

“This right is now set in stone,” Pigasse said in a joint interview with Niel in Le Figaro on Tuesday.

“The goal is to reinforce and entrench the group’s independence, because we believe Le Monde is a common good,” Niel added.

Journalists rebelled last year after Pigasse sold just under half his stake to Daniel Kretinsky, a Czech energy magnate who has bought a handful of French media properties.

His arrival also sparked concern among readers and minority shareholders that he could try influence the paper’s reporting, for example on environmental issues.

Earlier this month, around 500 writers, artists and activists including US whistleblower Edward Snowden and novelist Salman Rushdie signed an open letter of support for journalists seeking guarantees of editorial independence.

Pigasse and Niel now say they will study a plan to pool their Le Monde holdings into a foundation, nine years after they pledged 120 million euros ($132 million) to rescue a paper on the brink of bankruptcy along with fashion tycoon Pierre Berge.

Berge died in 2017 and his stake will be split between Pigasse and Niel, while Pigasse said his holding company would buy the 20 percent held by Spain’s Prisa media group.

“Le Monde has stopped burning cash over the past four years, and has become quite profitable,” Niel said of the paper, created just after World War II at the request of Charles de Gaulle.

“The problems experienced these past months weren’t financial, but more like a classic crisis within a couple,” he said.

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