Russian banker unveils bid to buy Le Monde

A billionaire Russian banker has said he is keen to buy elite French newspaper Le Monde, raising questions over its editorial independence.

The 43-year-old Moscow-based owner of My Bank, Gleb Fetisov, reportedly Russia's 42nd wealthiest man with a fortune of 1.3 billion, said he is interested in the deal in an interview with Russian daily Kommersant out on Tuesday (22 June).

"Its not a short-term speculative project. For me, this deal is first of all a business project. I intend to develop the newspaper and remain the owner of a controlling share," he said. "We have a unique opportunity to buy an antique specimen of the media market, which over the years can only become more valuable."

Mr Fetisov, a former senator for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, who in 2006 penned opinion pieces in defence of Russia's Gazprom in the first Ukraine gas crisis, said he will not interfere in Le Monde's newsroom.

"I have a clear idea of how to restructure debts and make money in publishing without interfering with the journalistic side. I bly support a structure that avoids political influence over editorial policy and the newspaper staff," he said.

"We see a chance to expand the advertising base of Le Monde on account of the interest of Russian companies, particularly state-owned corporations, in attracting French investment."

A bastion of the French establishment, the centre-left Le Monde was set up in 1944 by French leader General Charles de Gaulle to mark a break with Nazi collaboration by French media during World War II.

The paper's own journalists have until now held a controlling stake in the company as a guarantee of editorial autonomy. But the set-up is no longer viable as the publication faces running out of cash to pay back debt due in July.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy caused a stir in June when he tried to block a bid for the paper by three businessmen with connections to political rivals in the run-up to French presidential elections in 2012.

One of the bidders, Xavier Niel, runs the anti-Sarkozy Mediapart news website. A second, Mathieu Pigasse, is a former advisor to potential French presidential candidate and IMF chief Dominque Strauss-Kahn, while the third, Pierre Berge, is a supporter of Socialist politician Segolene Royal.

French telecommunications and media baron Claude Perdriel, who already owns the left-leaning Nouvel Observateur news magazine, is also interested in a Le Monde deal.

If Russia's Mr Fetisov succeeds he will become the second major Russian investor in the French media sector. Alexander Pugachev, the 25-year-old son of Russian banking billionaire and Putin ally Sergei Pugachev, bought the France Soir tabloid in 2009.

The developments mirror trends in the UK, where Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB agent turned banker, in March bought the struggling Independent newspaper, building on his previous acqusition in 2009 of the London-based Evening Standard daily.

[Source: By Andrew Rettman, Euobserver, Brussels, 22jun10]

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