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Banker sets sights on left wing newspaper

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Banker sets sights on Left-wing newspaper
By Colin Randall in Paris
(Filed: 15/12/2004)

A scion of one of the world's most famous banks yesterday outlined his plans to buy a controlling stake in the Libération newspaper, symbol of French Left-wing radicalism.

Edouard de Rothschild confirmed that he proposed to spend 20 million euros (£13.8 million) to take a 37 per cent controlling stake in the loss-making Libération, potentially rising to 49 per cent by 2011 depending on performance. Parisian dinner table talk has suggested that Jean-Paul Sartre, darling of Left-wing French intellectuals and co-founder of the daily more than 30 years ago, and Chairman Mao, the launch committee's political inspiration, may be spinning in their graves.

The view among journalists at the paper, which sells about 150,000 copies a day, stretches from relief at the appearance of a saviour and concern at the pairing of such strange bedfellows. Staff, who hold a 30 per cent stake, will decide their position in a vote on Jan 6.

But Mr de Rothschild, speaking yesterday to The Telegraph, saw no conflict of interests in his proposed investment, which has still to be finalised.

"There is not such a big difference between Right and Left these days," he said. "What I find is that you have different people, people with good ideas and projects. Okay, some journalists are better than others, but I basically just think Libération is an intelligent newspaper and I don't get into politics."

Mr de Rothschild, 46-year-old son of Baron Guy de Rothschild, was previously a partner in the family's investment bank, second largest in the world after Lazard. He was previously tipped to take over as head of the bank from his half-brother David but instead became president of the French horse racing association, France Galop.

He is the latest in a series of leading French entrepreneurial figures to show interest in becoming press barons, a seemingly high-risk aspiration given the torrid times through which the country's newspaper industry have been proceeding.

Circulations are falling along with advertising revenue and are hardly helped by desperate sales and distribution arrangements. International league tables confirm that the French have relatively little interest in daily newspapers.

None of this, however, stopped the defence industry tycoon Serge Dassault taking control of the conservative daily Le Figaro this year.

Libération journalists take comfort from Mr de Rothschild's apparent lack of appetite for interfering in editorial freedom; Mr Dassault reportedly told his editors to think twice about articles harmful to French industrial interests.

The centre-left daily Le Monde, which is looking for substantial redundancies to offset the immediate threat from mounting losses, is also hoping to find a wealthy partner willing to inject £34.5 million. Its campaigning editor Edwy Plenel was recently eased out, to be replaced this week by Gérard Courtois, whose less combative style has been noted in disparaging terms by rival commentators.

By comparison with the upheavals at other titles, Mr de Rothschild's declared intentions seem uncontroversial. The brand is "under-utilised", he says, and needs to exploit television, radio and internet links and consider launching supplements and making a price cut from 83p to 69p.

Libération is unrecognisable in content from the shrill Left-wing organ of earlier days, when an egalitarian salary structure also discouraged embarrassing differentials between editors' pay and support staff wages.

But there are still occasional glimpses of the old guard, such as a recent laudatory piece on Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker.

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