Newspapers: It's like BAE buying 'The Daily Telegraph'. Incroyable!

'Le Figaro', France's voice of the right, has fallen into the hands of an arms manufacturer. John Lichfield reports
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The Independent Online

Imagine if 75 per cent of the American press were owned by Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. Imagine if 75 per cent of the British press were owned by BAE Systems. Imagine if the people who ran those companies were also among the biggest supporters of President George Bush or Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Imagine if 75 per cent of the American press were owned by Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. Imagine if 75 per cent of the British press were owned by BAE Systems. Imagine if the people who ran those companies were also among the biggest supporters of President George Bush or Prime Minister Tony Blair.

There would, one presumes, be an enormous, political outcry against the control of the media by the political-military-industrial establishment.

Something of this kind has just happened in France. The outcry has been muted and restricted largely to journalists and the few remaining independent media organisations.

The Dassault group, makers of the Mirage fighter plane and other military hardware, has purchased the overwhelming share in Socpresse, the company that owns the conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro, the weekly news magazine L'Express, two of the largest regional newspapers, and more than 60 other publications.

The Lagardère group, formerly Matra, a large shareholder in the European airbus and other aviation and weapons companies, already owns, through the Hachette empire, Paris Match, Elle, the only national Sunday newspaper, and almost all the newspapers in the Marseilles-Nice region. It is also the biggest book publisher, the biggest book distributor and the biggest news agent in France.

More than three-quarters of the French press is now controlled by these two big military-industrial groups, whose bosses - Serge Dassault and Arnaud Lagardère - are close friends and allies of President Jacques Chirac.

Mr Dassault's decision to buy out the remaining 50 per cent share in Socpresse still owned by the family of the late media tycoon Robert Hersant, was no great surprise. The Dassault group already controlled 30 per cent of the company, whose interests range from Le Figaro - the only conservative national title - to the excellent L'Express and the dominant papers in two of France's most populous regions, the Lille and Lyons conurbations.

What the commercial synergy might be - other than paper aeroplanes - between an armaments company and a newspaper company is unclear. Mr Dassault has not explained his strategy; nor has he, publicly, promised to respect the editorial independence of publications in the Socpresse group.

Lagardère's motivation is more transparent. Its media wing mostly owns highly profitable but apolitical "people" magazines, such as Paris Match, Elle, Tele 7 jours, France Dimanche, Ici Paris and the Paris listings magazine, Pariscope.

Le Figaro and L'Express, by contrast, are important features of the political landscape, but not profitable investments. Le Figaro (circulation around 300,000) is the French equivalent of The Daily Telegraph. Although fiercely conservative and pro-Chirac in its editorial line, the quality and independence of the reportage in Le Figaro has much improved in recent years.

There are suggestions that it is too independent for Mr Dassault's taste. One of the journalists' unions at the paper put a series of written questions to him through its managers. One was: "Does [Mr Dassault] want to be the gendarme and director of conscience of [Figaro] journalists?" No reply yet.

There have also been anxious noises from the centre-left French press, such as Le Monde, Libération and Le Canard Enchaîné. All are independent, although Le Monde has been trying to build an alternative media empire of its own in recent years.

All of them fear the political - and commercial - implications of a press dominated by the money and ideas of armaments tycoons.

Le Monde asked: "Is France returning to the bad old days (before the Second World War) when newspapers were the dancing girls of billionaires?"

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