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6.28.2010 Le Monde to be taken over by tycoon who built fortune on porn

By John Lichfield

The journalists of Le Monde, the most prestigious French-language publication in the world, have contemptuously defeated an attempt by President Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene in the sale of their struggling newspaper.

As a result, Le Monde, once known for its uncompromising austerity, will today fall into the hands of the former romantic and business partner of Yves Saint-Laurent and a radical, self-made billionaire who founded his fortune on internet pornography, chat lines and peep shows.

Le Monde's journalists, who have controlled the newspaper for almost half a century, voted by over 90 per cent to accept the majority ownership bid of a consortium headed by Pierre Bergé, 81, the retired fashion impresario, and Xavier Niel, 42, one of France's most successful, and controversial, internet entrepreneurs.

The decision was matched by equally crushing votes by Le Monde's reader-shareholders and the employees of several subsidiary publications. The managing board of Le Monde will confirm the choice today, guaranteeing the immediate future of one of the world's most distinctive and respected newspapers.

The bid by Mr Bergé and Mr Niel was always likely to be the most attractive to Le Monde's employees and readers. The entrepreneurs, and the third member of their consortium, Matthieu Pigasse, a merchant banker, had promised the journalists a "blocking" vote on future changes and complete editorial independence.

President Sarkozy's clumsy intervention two weeks ago – summoning the newspaper's editor-in-chief to the Elysée to back a rival offer – only served to make the outcome certain and the scale of the vote overwhelming. Mr Sarkozy is reported to have objected to Mr Niel as a co-owner of Le Monde on moral grounds.

Mr Niel, now a multi-billionaire, started his business career at the age of 19 by launching a sexual contact service on Minitel, France's dial-up precursor to the internet. He branched out into peep shows before making a colossal fortune from his internet access and telephone companies, Free and Iliad.

Among many other business interests, Mr Niel owns the rights to the songs written by the 1960s French pop singer, Claude François. He is therefore the owner of the global rights to the music, but not the English lyrics, of the karaoke classic, "My Way".

In 2006 Mr Niel was given a two-year suspended sentence for embezzlement. More recently, he has backed two left-wing, investigative websites in France, Bakchich and Mediapart.

These ventures into radical politics and journalism are believed to be the real reason for Mr Sarkozy's opposition to his part-ownership of Le Monde.

The president is reported to have feared that Mr Niel, and the equally leftwing Mr Bergé, a backer of the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, in 2007, would turn the newspaper into an anti-Sarkozy vehicle.

The president tried to persuade Le Monde's editor-in-chief, Eric Fottorino, that he and his staff should back a rival consortium, consisting of France Telecom, the Spanish newspaper El Pais and the owner of the centre-left news magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur. The bid included several people with connections with the president's centre-right party.

Le Monde, once known for its elaborate French and its grey pages, has surrendered readers and advertising revenue to the internet in recent years.

It has also made strategic errors, such as spinning off part of the ownership, and revenue, of its excellent web-site to another company.

It has abandoned some of its legendary austerity and wordiness in the past decade. There are now photographs, sports coverage and large, less ponderous headlines. Many readers find the changes refreshing. Others say the newspaper has been irretrievably dumbed down.

Either way, Le Monde's circulation fell by 4 per cent last year, to 288,000. The Le Monde holding company, which also owns weekly magazines such as Courrier International, Telerama and La Vie, lost €25m (£20.5m). Its journalists have fought tooth and claw to maintain their de facto control over the title for years. Two months ago, they accepted that they had no choice but to relinquish majority ownership to a new investor.

In a speech to staff on Friday night, Mr Fottorino backed the Bergé-Niel-Pigasse consortium. The question was, he said, to whom should Le Monde "give the keys of the company" without "selling our editorial independence". Although the Le Nouvel Observateur-El Pais-France Telecom bid was "honourable" and "solid", the business plan and guarantees given by Mr Bergé and Mr Niel were clearer, he said.

They also explicitly "recognised" Le Monde's "history" as an intelligent, independent voice. In other words, Le Monde may be about to change hands but its journalists plan to continue to do things "Their Way".