The end of 'The World', as its journalists know it, is nigh

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The Independent Online

The world is up for sale. In the next 10 days, Le Monde (The World), France's most prestigious newspaper, will decide which of four domestic and foreign suitors should control a publication which has been majority-owned by its own employees for 59 years.

In a front-page declaration "to our readers", Le Monde's editor-in-chief, Eric Fottorino, promised that any buyer would have to guarantee the independence of one of the world's most distinctive and respected newspapers. But he admitted that the Le Monde group, which has been losing €25m (£21m) a year, faced a "historic turning point" and an "upheaval".

Le Monde journalists, who have fought tooth and claw to maintain their control over the title, now accept that they have no choice but to relinquish majority ownership to a new investor. Four suitors have already expressed an interest in making a bid before the 14 June deadline.

They include the owner of the magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur (centre-left like Le Monde), and a consortium led by Pierre Bergé, the former romantic and business partner of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. At least two foreign media groups are also expected to bid, Ringier of Switzerland and L'Espresso in Italy.

Le Monde, once known for its ornate French and grey pages, has surrendered readers and advertising revenue to the internet in recent years like newspapers all over the world. It has also made a couple of strategic errors, spinning off revenue from its excellent website to another company and trying to expand into magazines and the regional press.

In an attempt to rebuild its circulation (which fell by 4 per cent last year to 288,000), Le Monde has abandoned some of its legendary austerity and wordiness in the past decade. It now has photographs, sports coverage and large(ish), less ponderous headlines. It also has reader promotions, including, this week, a cut-price offer on 20 erotic classics of world literature. Gone are the days when a Le Monde headline might be longer and more complex than the opening paragraph in a rival newspaper. In the edition of 12 May, 1981, the day after an epoch-making French presidential election, Le Monde's front-page headline read, roughly, as follows. "The very clear victory of Mr François Mitterrand goes beyond a unification of the whole of the left and widens the divisions of the outgoing majority". Yesterday's front-page headline was, "Petrol giant BP bogged down in its oil spill".

But in other respects, Le Monde remains implacably Le Monde. The newspaper is published in Paris in the afternoons (supposedly at about 1pm but actually at any time between 1.30pm and 3.30pm). It carries the next day's date and is sold in most of provincial France as a morning paper the following day. Although some readers complain that editorial quality has declined, Le Monde remains by far the best-written and most challenging daily newspaper in France.

The newspaper was founded by Hubert Beuve-Méry in 1944 to replace the titles disgraced by collaboration with Nazism and the Vichy regime during the war. Le Monde, which celebrated its 20,000th edition in 2008, rapidly became accepted as the pinnacle of French journalism and one of the greatest newspapers in the world.

Like all French "national" newspapers, Le Monde has always had a relatively small circulation outside Paris. Although never a journal of record (it was always too opinionated for that), it became the newspaper of the intellectual, artistic and governing classes. Despite its position on the moderate left, it was traditionally read by many people who voted on the centre-right.

Any purchaser would be expected to pay off Le Monde's debts of €125m (£104m), including an emergency loan of €25m in 2009, which has to be repaid next year. In return, it is now accepted that the majority ownership of the "societies" of Le Monde journalists and other employees will have to end.

Le Monde's journalists hope that they will be able to retain their cherished right to vote on any change in the editorship. But they are expected to give up their right to vote on the appointment of the chief executive of the entire group (including the magazines Télérama Courrier International and La Vie). The editor-in-chief, M. Fottorino, promised readers that the change in ownership would allow the newspaper to "envisage new horizons, while respecting its founding values, armed with undiminished ambition to invent its own future".