Au revoir to France's secret empire?

The owner of 'le Figaro' liked his privacy. But after his death, questions are being asked about Robert Hersant's business - and his past. By Mary Dejevsky

When Robert Hersant, one of France's few media magnates, died at his home near Paris on 21 April at the age of 76, the tributes were many, and dutiful - most notably, of course, from Le Figaro, the Paris newspaper he had owned for 21 years.Underlying every obit, laudatory or bitter, however, was a distinct note of unease, and a question that could not be easily answered. Would the national - and international - media empire that he spent decades building survive his death?

Socpress, the group that he founded in the Fifties and headed thereafter, moved quickly. They named Yves de Chaisemartin, his 48-year- old deputy and vice-chairman, to succeed him within hours of Hersant's passing. De Chaisemartin immediately insisted that the group would not be broken up. "People have been talking of dismantling it for 40 years," he said after last week's hastily arranged board meeting. "But there is no more reason to do so today than there was yesterday, and there will be no more reason tomorrow than there is today."

De Chaisemartin's words were reassuring. He was Hersant's deputy and closest collaborator. He was reported to be Hersant's chosen successor. He is also regarded by those familiar with the company as one of only three people - Hersant being one, and Christian Grimaldi, the group's financial director, another - who really knew the financial state of Socpress.

"If Robert Hersant built up this business," de Chaisemartin was quoted as saying, "it was in order to have a group big enough to be an economic proposition nationally and internationally. For this business, and for this country, it is useful to have big communications groups like ours ... most of all to ensure independence." Indeed. Hersant had recognised earlier than most in the French media and communications world that size and the ability to cross national boundaries would be of crucial importance.

This realisation, however, while unusual in the insular French media world, was not widely appreciated. And it has done little to dispeldoubts about Socpress's prospects. Doubts that derive partly from the nature of the empire Hersant built and partly from the character of Hersant himself.

Even by French standards of "discretion" in relation to business affairs, Hersant was secretive. Socpress has always been a private company; it has never published any audited figures. Shortly before his death, one of Hersant's sons was said to have confided to a friend that no one in the family knew exactly what the group's financial situation was, and that no one knew their way around the different, interlocking companies: "No one, that is, except my father, de Chaisemartin and Grimaldi."

So when, as last week, the Hersant empire was said to be in extreme difficulties - annual losses are estimated at between Fr3.5bn and Fr6bn, on an annual turnover of up to Fr7bn - no one could step forward to disprove it.

De Chaisemartin says that any losses are wildly exaggerated. But two of the banks known to have granted Robert Hersant the main credits for his business, Credit Lyonnais and Paribas have turned out some of the worst results ever in French banking.

The day after Hersant's death, sources atLe Figaro were quoted as saying: "The succession has to be settled fast. This group is like a house of cards. It just needs one bank to start to call in the loans for everything to collapse."

Even if the wilder speculation about the group's fortunes is incorrect, the structure still looks arbitrary and appears to lack strategy. Hersant's empire fell into two parts: the main holding company, Socpress, headed by Hersant himself since its creation 34 years ago, and a second, much smaller, group, France-Antilles, headed by his son Philippe.

The star of Socpress is Le Figaro, the national daily based in Paris with a circulation of 400,000 and a conservative, currently pro-Chirac, editorial line. The paper has several supplements including a weekend magazine (the first to be published with a French daily), a glossy women's magazine, Madame Figaro, also distributed with the Saturday edition, and a TV supplement which is among the best-selling magazines, ahead of the weekly news glossies such as l'Express.

Socpress also owns the popular evening paper, France Soir, and has interests abroad, including the Belgian paper Le Soir and the Polish Rzeczpospolita. Both Socpress and France-Antilles own numbers of French regional newspapers, which Hersant collected whenever he spotted a gap in the market.

Although these interests amount to almost a third of the French newspaper market (the maximum any individual may own), many observers doubt whether they constitute a media empire. They view them rather as a personal collection which faces dispersal, primarily on economic grounds.

Hersant's character and personal record is the other factor in the equation. Discretionabout one's private life is seen as more of a virtue than a vice in French society, but in Hersant's case there was a negative aspect. He began his connection with newspapers, and with politics, before and during the Nazi occupation. His bizarre personal history saw him active in the socialist movement as a teenager, and thereafter a contributor to pro-Nazi and collaboration news sheets (see box).

Hersant himself said little about these years - or, indeed, about anything. The last interview he gave was in 1978 during an uproar about the extent of his newspaper ownership. His defenders, whose number grew in proportion to his holdings, said his involvement with the Occupation was an error of youth and that he was always deeply embarrassed, if not humiliated, by the 10 years of "national disgrace" to which he was condemned after France's liberation.

He received an amnesty in 1952, when he was already starting his career as aspiring press baron with the launch of the car magazine Auto-Journal - intended to be the first magazine for the user, nor just the producer - and continued with regular purchases of provincial dailies, through to the acquisition in 1978 of Le Figaro, which was then in extreme financial difficulties.

He continued to be an adept political operator, becoming an MP, then an MEP, and shifting from the Socialists to the centre-right as the political winds changed. Last year, like many in the French business world, Hersant backed Edouard Balladur for the presidency. Within days of the election, however, Le Figaro becameardently pro-Chirac.

While all the ducking and weaving and close links with the political elite served Hersant well, they also exposed him as an old-style operator. In recent years, the secrecy surrounding his activities was also becoming a liability, as financial "transparency", especially of businesses with international connections, was starting to be considered de rigeur.

In other respects, Hersant was a pioneer. He was the first French newspaper owner to appreciate the need for control of the printing as well as editorial process; he was at the forefront of the introduction of new printing technology in France - albeit in a series of still unresolved compromises with the print unions - opening the Roissy print works, then the most advanced in Europe, in 1978.

He was also one of the first to see the opportunities afforded by internationally owned independent television channels, buying into French television's Channel 5 in 1987. And he was quick to grasp the potential for advertising and circulation of a glossy magazine distributed with a newspaper, insisting on the best quality paper, against the advice of the manywho said newspapers were "perishable" and paper quality made little difference.

Proclaiming this legacy, Yves de Chaisemartin insists the empire remains viable. Rejecting the sale of Le Figaro, he asserts the paper's dominance in a depressed market: "There are papers, including le Monde or Liberation, that are doing much worse than Le Figaro and don't have any more shares to sell." He has indicated that by selling shares, and tightening financial controls, Socpress can be kept together.

However, if he eventually has to sell parts of the Hersant empire, he can cite plenty of precedents. Hersant himself ended his involvement in Channel Five in 1990 for financial reasons, sold 10 of his magazines to Emap in 1995, and insisted - to his dying day - that newspapers "benefited from constant replenishment". Whatever de Chaisemartin decides - or is forced to do by the banks now eager to inspect those legendary accounts - Hersant's own flexibility makes a useful excuse. And alibi. THE RISE AND THE FALL 1920: Robert Hersant born in Vertou.

1936: Becomes secretary-general of Normandy socialist youth. Falls in with the Front Populaire. During Nazi occupation, gravitates towards the Vichy regime, launching Jeune Front, an anti-Jewish and anti-Freemason organisation.

Establishes Jeunes Forces in support of Marshal Petain, and writes for Pilori, a weekly magazine "fighting Freemasonry".

1945: Stands for National Assembly. Fails.

1947: Sentenced to 10 years of "national indignity" for wartime activities. Reprieved 4 years later.

1949: Launches Auto-Journal, targeting car-owners. Its circulation increases tenfold to 300,000 in three years.

1952: Starts the daily Oise-Matin.

1953: Becomes Mayor of Ravenel.

1955: Starts L'Equipement Menager and Le Quincailler and the Publiprint press agency.

1956: Elected to parliament under the wing of President Pierre Mendes- France and Francois Mitterrand's Union Democratique et Socialiste de la Resistance.

1958: Begins acquiring French newspapers left, right and centre. This earns him the nickname of "Papivore" (a pun on carnivore and paper). Merges four regional titles to create Centre-Presse.

1965: Backs Mitterrand's failed presidential bid.

1975: Buys the right-leaning daily Le Figaro.

1976: Tightens hold on the Paris market with the purchase of l'Aurore and France-Soir. The Government introduces a new Bill so blatantly aimed at Hersant that it becomes known as the loi Hersant. It forbids the ownership of more than 10 per cent of national daily and regional daily newspaper sales. (Hersant owned nearer 40 per cent. A court ruled that the law could not apply retroactively.)

1978: Fails to be returned to the National Assembly.

1984: Becomes a Member of the European Parliament. Achieves dubious honour of one of the most dismal attendance records in Strasbourg:10 times in 284 days.

1986: Elected again to the national parliament.

1987: Makes moves with Silvio Berlusconi to establish a fifth French terrestrial TV channel, La Cinq. Venture fails in 1990.

1990s: Expands abroad, acquiring a stake in the Brussels daily Le Soir. Also invests in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

1992: Le Figaro's income falls by F600m, France-Soir having lost more than F100m the year before. Losses are kept to around F30m after internal cutbacks, but Hersant has to sell 10 of his most profitable magazines to Emap. Rumours of financial collapse follow him to the grave.

SCOTT HUGHES

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