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A Czech billionaire buys a piece of Le Monde

[PARIS] Blaise Gauquelin, the Central Europe correspondent for Le Monde, called his editor at the paper's Paris headquarters one day last fall to pass along something of interest: One of the two French businessmen who controlled the 75-year-old daily was selling part of his stake to a Czech billionaire named Daniel Kretinsky.

The news sent a tremor through the newsroom of the august national publication.

Le Monde's journalists looked into Mr Kretinsky and noted that he had built his fortune largely on power plants and coal mines across Europe. He also owns part of a pipeline that brings Russian gas through Slovakia to the West. Why would an international energy magnate be interested in an anti-Kremlin newspaper that had invested heavily in covering climate change?

Mr Kretinsky's earlier foray into French media, the purchase of the centre-left newsweekly Marianne for five million euros (S$7.7 million) last year, contributed to the staff's wariness, given that his first big move was to install the conservative commentator Natacha Polony as editor.

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Mr Kretinsky, 43, has had a rapid rise under the tutelage of two of the most successful privatization barons in the post-communist Czech Republic and Slovakia, Patrik Tkac and Petr Kellner. His main business, EPH, comprises more than 50 companies and has annual revenue of six billion euros.

With part of his fortune, Mr Kretinsky bought 49 per cent of the stake in Le Monde's parent company held by Matthieu Pigasse, the chief executive of Lazard France. That deal made Mr Kretinsky the owner of a little more than 13 per cent of the paper and its sibling publications.

Although Le Monde reported that Mr Pigasse had initially hoped to sell his entire stake to the Prague energy executive, Mr Kretinsky said in an interview at the Georges V hotel in Paris that he was content, for now, with his status a minority owner.

"The idea is to support and to one day be around the table, and have exchanges and talks and debates," Mr Kretinsky said. "You cannot jump over to Paris for one day a month and believe you can be the sole shareholder of Le Monde. It would be a great pleasure to be there, and if they needed to be supported, that is something we would do with great pleasure."

Mr Kretinsky, who is fluent in French, said he fell in love with France as a child while watching French films on Czech television. As a young man, he spent a semester studying law at the University of Dijon. Even if he were to become the leader of Le Monde, he said, he would not interfere in the newsroom.

"If you become the chairman of a media company, its audience, its spirit, its convictions and its values are things you will never try to take from it," Mr Kretinsky said. "Your personal political convictions must be completely disregarded."

His stake in Le Monde, an afternoon paper with more than 300,000 subscribers, allows him to play a more prominent part in supporting "trans-Atlantic democracy," he said, and to push for greater regulation of Facebook, Google and other internet giants, which, he argued, undermine the free press.

"Being around Le Monde, it's much easier to launch this debate as a real member of the family of French publishers," Mr Kretinsky said. "The Czech Republic is just too small."

Le Monde's executive editor, Jérôme Fenoglio, said that the other two major shareholders, Mr Pigasse and the Internet entrepreneur Xavier Niel, have kept the proper distance from the paper's journalists since taking control of Le Monde Group nine years ago.

"The newsroom is completely independent," Mr Fenoglio said.

Le Monde's reporters and editors had a controlling stake in the paper from its founding in 1944 until it was sold with their approval in 2010, and they still have a say in how it is run. What troubled some in the newsroom about Mr Kretinsky's entry into the ownership group, the editor added, was the lack of transparency surrounding it.

"The problem is that we heard it through the grapevine, truly the worst way to win our trust," Mr Fenoglio said. "The condition that would allow us to have confidence in Mr. Mr Kretinsky is simply to agree to our right of approval, and our right to approve or block his ownership in the company. Whoever the new shareholder is, if he loves Le Monde and wants to help it grow, he has to respect its independence."

Sophie des Déserts, who covers the media for the French edition of Vanity Fair, said Le Monde had little reason to worry about its new shareholder. "I don't see Daniel Kretinsky threatening the newspaper," she said. "It's not in his interest."

Sylvie Kauffmann, a columnist for Le Monde who was formerly its executive editor, said she would not rush to judge Mr Kretinsky, but noted that the paper's journalistic and financial success depend on its refusal to kowtow to the rich and powerful.

"A newspaper that can't be independent," she said, "is not a good newspaper."