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What would Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher who founded French left-wing daily Libération in 1973, have said about a plan to sell 37 percent of his beloved paper to Edouard de Rothschild, a former investment banker whose name is synonymous with capitalism?
What would Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher who founded French left-wing daily Libération in 1973, have said about a plan to sell 37 percent of his beloved paper to Edouard de Rothschild, a former investment banker whose name is synonymous with capitalism? "He very well might say, 'Oui,'" declares Edouard Launet, a cultural affairs reporter and a board member of the Société Civile des Personnels de Libération, the employee group that has controlled the daily since its founding. "I'm sure he would have evolved with the times, just as we all have."
The paper's co-founder, Serge July, who has been editor-in-chief since its creation, negotiated a deal last month that will see Rothschild, the half brother of Rothschild Group chairman Baron David de Rothschild, purchase the stake for E20 million ($27.1 million). The offer is expected to be approved this month by a majority of the paper's employees, who currently own 36.4 percent of Libération through the SCPL.
With this purchase, Rothschild, 47, will lay the foundation for his own media empire, placing Libération -- which he believes is an underutilized brand -- at its center. Rothschild told the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro that he sees Libération as the possible "main engine," or central content provider, for a media group that he envisions including TV and the Internet. "It's a major daily whose influence on society significantly exceeds its circulation numbers," Rothschild told Le Figaro.
The lefties at Libération are relatively comfortable with the idea of Rothschild as the paper's biggest shareholder, largely thanks to guarantees already in place, says Launet. The agreement with Rothschild allows the SCPL to maintain its right to elect both the newspaper's chairman and its editor-in-chief and gives the SCPL veto power over strategic decisions. The promise to keep the status quo was essential given that the capital increase will dilute the SCPL's ownership stake to 19 percent while further reducing the stakes of three other owners: cinema group Pathé, London-based private equity firm 3i and Communication et Participation, a holding company owned by Libération's readers.
The SCPL members are also aware of the paper's "real need for money," says Launet. Libération, which has a total debt of E18 million, lost an estimated E2 million in 2004 as average daily sales declined. Rothschild's millions will be used to build revenue through new supplements, more efficient printing and a long-overdue subscription drive.
Joining the family firm in 1987, Rothschild helped build the Paris branch into the country's No. 1 merger adviser before leaving in December 2003 to become chief executive of France Galop, the French horse racing association. Although he might not have seen eye-to-eye politically with Sartre, both would have agreed that the value of Libération -- commercial and moral -- resides in its continued editorial independence. After all, there are no innocent bylines.