A crisis at Le Monde has deepened after a leading shareholder signalled he was not ready to sign an agreement with journalists to safeguard editorial independence at the influential French newspaper.

A person close to Czech energy billionaire Daniel Kretinsky, who last October unexpectedly purchased a stake of about 10 per cent in Groupe Le Monde, which owns the left-leaning daily, said he disagreed with journalists and staff over several terms of the proposed deal and that the agreement was “economically unreasonable”.

Mr Kretinsky “probably won’t sign this agreement in its current form”, he said.

The deadline to sign the deal is Tuesday. It is the culmination of 11 months of negotiations between journalists at the Paris-based paper and leading shareholders, who include Mr Kretinsky, telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel and Lazard banker Matthieu Pigasse.

Mr Niel has already signed, said people involved in the negotiations, but neither Mr Pigasse nor Mr Kretinsky have done so. Mr Pigasse declined to comment.

More than 460 journalists at the paper — where paid subscribers were up 11 per cent in the first six months of the year and digital subscribers rose by a quarter — signed an open letter earlier this week in defence of its editorial freedom, described in the letter as “our most valuable asset”.

The move follows a year-long effort that began after Mr Kretinsky purchased his stake. The arrival of the Czech billionaire, who has carved out a reputation as one of Europe’s most prominent dealmakers over the past decade, sparked concern among a group of stakeholders in Le Monde known as the “pole of independence”. The group represents the newspaper’s journalists, staff, readers and founders and is a minority shareholder in Groupe Le Monde.

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“Kretinsky’s background in carbon and power makes him a questionable owner of a newspaper that’s increasingly concerned with the environment and climate change,” said Paul Benkimoun, president of the paper’s society of editors, who is involved in the negotiations.

“Never in its history has a new shareholder joined Le Monde without the approval of its journalists,” added a person close to the newspaper.

“Our key asset is the trusted relationship we have between our readers and our journalism,” Louis Dreyfus, Le Monde’s publisher, told the Financial Times. “Editorial independence is central to our business model and to the credibility of the newspaper. Without it we weaken this trust and weaken our economic model.”

In the past year Mr Kretinsky has raised eyebrows in the French establishment by making inroads in the country’s media through his investment vehicle Czech Media Invest. Notably he has bought several titles from media group Lagardère, as well as the minority stake in Le Monde.

Czech businessman Daniel Kretinsky gives a speech during the 13th "Rencontres de l'Udecam" on September 5, 2019, in Paris. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images
Le Monde journalists have questioned the suitability of Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky to be a leading shareholder in the iconic newspaper © AFP

Seeking to assuage concerns that Mr Kretinsky — or any new shareholder — might try to exercise direct or indirect control over Le Monde, Mr Niel and Mr Pigasse committed in writing last autumn to seek the approval of the pole of independence before anyone could buy a controlling stake.

The desire to formalise this gained new urgency this summer when it emerged that Mr Pigasse and Mr Kretinsky had begun negotiations with Spanish media conglomerate Prisa to buy out its minority stake in Groupe Le Monde, increasing the pair’s hold on the media group.

Following almost a year of negotiations, the pole of independence earlier this month presented Mr Niel, Mr Pigasse and Mr Kretinsky with an agreement that included the group’s right to refuse any controlling shareholder deemed unsuitable and the right to approve the financial terms of any buyout.

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While in principle Mr Kretinsky was not against an agreement and would continue discussions, his team said, he disagreed with several terms of the proposed deal.

The person close to the Czech businessman, who earlier this month became the second-largest shareholder in French retailer Casino, said his proposal to create a list of criteria against which any potential new shareholder would be measured had been rejected. He added: “They want to be able to buy Kretinsky out whenever they want and at a price they decide.”

The person added that there was “no urgency” and “no need to worry”. He noted that Mr Kretinsky remained a minority shareholder in Le Monde with no board representation.

“We hope that Pigasse and Kretinsky will listen to the voice of reason and sign the agreement — it’s not enough just to say that they respect our editorial independence,” said Mr Benkimoun. “If they don’t, we will speak to our lawyers and see how we can proceed.”

Meanwhile, with the deadline for shareholder signatures fast approaching, pressure is mounting. “All the journalists at Le Monde are ready and mobilised,” said Mr Benkimoun. “This isn’t war, but things are getting increasingly tense.”

Via Financial Times