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Le Monde news daily sold to billionaire trio

A trio of French businessmen won control of leading French news daily Le Monde on Monday despite government efforts to halt the takeover. Founded in 1944, Le Monde has struggled to stay afloat in the Internet age.


AFP - A French internet billionaire, a patron of the arts and a flamboyant banker won control of Le Monde newspaper on Monday despite President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to stop them.

The trio includes Xavier Niel, an internet entrepreneur who first made his money from sex chat services and later shook up the French internet market with cheap connection packages.

With him is Pierre Berge, the super-rich partner of the late fashion guru Yves Saint-Laurent, and Matthieu Pigasse, a senior figure at investment bank Lazard who owns the alternative news and culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles.

Their bid won the approval of the paper's supervisory board, 11 of whose members voted for it, a source close to the board told AFP.

The world's leading French-language newspaper has been struggling to survive in the internet age and put out a call to investors willing to buy into the loss-making daily and pay off its debt of around 100 million euros.

Several bidders -- including a Russian billionaire -- joined the race to take over what for the moment is more of a status symbol than a viable money-making business.

But by Monday, after France Telecom subsidiary Orange and an allied press group withdrew their bid, only one consortium was left in the running to buy a paper that was founded when the Nazis were chased out of Paris in 1944.

A senior journalist at the newspaper, who asked not be named, said Le Monde staff were on the whole happy at the outcome and believed that the trio would honour their promise not to interfere editorially.

"I tend to believe what Berge and the others said, that this is the last independent paper in France and they want to keep it that way," he told AFP.

Orange pulled out after Le Monde's journalists' association, the main shareholder, voted on Friday in favour of the trio.

The left-of-centre daily's search for fresh capital turned political earlier this month when Sarkozy summoned the publisher of the daily, Eric Fottorino.

The right-wing president told him he opposed the Berge-Pigasse-Niel bid because of their ties to France's left-wing opposition, drawing accusations from the Socialist Party that Sarkozy was threatening press freedom.

Pigasse and Berge are both supporters of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund who is seen as a likely rival to Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential elections.

Berge also helped finance the Socialist Segolene Royal when she ran against Sarkozy in the 2007 election.

Niel, who funds two left-wing investigative French news websites, began his entrepreneurial career with the launch of Minitel, a French fore-runner to the internet which included a chat service.

He later invested in sex shops and went on to make a huge fortune with his internet and phone companies Free and Iliad. He was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2006 for embezzlement.

The involvement of France Telecom, which is partly owned by the French state, in the takeover bid sparked controversy because it came after the intervention by Sarkozy.

But the firm's chief executive denied he had entered the bidding at the president's request.

Under the Berge-Pigasse-Niel bid, the investors will be required to stump up an initial 10 million euros without which the paper may not be able to pay its journalists' salaries in the coming months.

The trio will then enter exclusive negotiations for the group's titles, which include the daily and several magazines.

Berge, Pigasse and Niel promised to let the paper's editors maintain full editorial independence and let the journalists' association keep its right to veto major decisions.

They say they hope to integrate the newspaper and website operations, which are currently editorially separate.

Today about 280 journalists work for Le Monde, which has a circulation of about 300,000.

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