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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager (EMEA) - City, London

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?