Le Monde, the left-leaning establishment daily that long refused capitalist investment, suffered the indignity on Thursday of being dragged into a courtroom battle between three shareholders vying for its ownership.
Madison Cox, 62, a celebrated American landscape gardener who has a 26.6 percent stake in the newspaper, was pitted against two French investors, Matthieu Pigasse, 52, a banker, and Xavier Niel, 53, a telecommunications tycoon, who both have big holdings.
Behind the tussle lies the notion, cherished by Le Monde’s staff, that it is a newspaper unlike almost any other. Its reporters enjoy total freedom from political and financial influence and can block the arrival of new shareholders.
Cox inherited his stake from Pierre Bergé, the late industrialist to whom he was married. Bergé was previously married to Yves Saint Laurent, the designer. Cox claims that the newspaper’s independence is under threat after Pigasse sold some of his shares to a Czech billionaire. Pigasse and Niel say in turn that Cox is not so much interested in freedom of expression as in selling his stake for more than the $31.5 million they want to pay.
Cox inherited his stake from Pierre Bergé, the late industrialist to whom he was married. Bergé was previously married to Yves Saint Laurent.
The origin of the dispute goes back to 2010 when Le Monde, owned by staff ever since its creation in 1944, needed an injection of cash. In a deal approved by the Parisian establishment the rescue package was put together by Bergé, Niel and Pigasse. Niel had built a telecommunications empire from a 1980s French version of online pornography. Pigasse is an investment banker who was an adviser to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former head of the International Monetary Fund. The trio each took a 26.6 percent stake in the holding company to avoid one person owning the daily.
When Bergé died in 2017, he left his holding to Cox. Pigasse and Niel say that they signed an agreement with Bergé that gave them until next month to buy his stake for $31.5 million.
Cox says that they had 60 days after Bergé’s death to put in an offer. He claims that because they failed to do so within the time frame, he is not obliged to sell his shares. He also alleges that Niel and Pigasse owe him millions of dollars resulting from a separate agreement that they struck with Bergé.
Its reporters enjoy total freedom from political and financial influence and can block the arrival of new shareholders.
The Paris appeal court upheld Cox’s claim this week and ordered Pigasse to pay him $3 million. The Paris commercial court heard a separate case yesterday brought by Pigasse and Niel, who asked for an order forcing Cox to sell them his shares for $31.5 million.
The court battles come after Cox wrote to Pigasse and Niel saying that Le Monde’s ownership structure was “unstable, vague and unsatisfactory”. He accused Pigasse of “destabilizing the group” by selling a 10 percent stake to Daniel Kretinsky, 45, a Czech energy magnate, for $48.5 million in 2019.
“Le Monde’s capital cannot continually be the object of intrigues and secretive sales,” he wrote. He said that he wanted to honor his late husband’s commitment to maintain the newspaper’s independence.
Analysts say that $31.5 million would be a bargain price for Cox’s stake in the newspaper, given what Kretinsky paid for a holding half the size.
Adam Sage is a longtime Paris correspondent for The Times of London