Obituary: Robert Hersant

Though not as well known in the UK as Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell or Silvio Berlusconi, in his native France Robert Hersant was the media mogul par excellence. "I'm neither Citizen Kane nor Randolph Hearst. I own no mines, no factories, no oil companies. I am only a press baron," he said.

Yet, from humble beginnings as the creator of Auto-Journal, he built the Hersant Press Group, which controlled many of France's leading national (Le Figaro, France Soir) and regional dailies (Le Courrier de l'Ouest, Le Progres-Lyon-matin), giving him an undemocratic 30 per cent share of the market there. He also showed an amazing resilience and ability to reinvent himself in a political career which saw him flirting with the extreme right in the Second World War and later backing Francois Mitterrand's early presidential bid (in 1965) before rejoining the right- of-centre UDF and becoming a member of the European Parliament.

Born in Vertou (Loire- Atlantique) in 1920, this son of a Breton captain did not answer the call of the sea. At the age of 13, he was already designing mock lay-outs for newspapers. He studied in Le Havre and Rouen where he met the influential right-winger Jean Lecanuet, who was the town's mayor. At the age of 16, Hersant became secretary-general of the socialist youth of the Normandy area. He then fell in with the Front Populaire and, during the Nazi occupation, gravitated towards the Vichy regime, launching Jeune Front, an anti-Jewish and anti-freemason organisation.

From the Dreyfus affair to Petain's collaborators and Le Pen's recent outbursts, there has always been a pernicious anti-Semitism in some corners of French society and the young Robert certainly added to it at the time, setting up Jeunes Forces, a publication singing the praises of Marshal Petain, and writing in Pilori, a weekly magazine supposedly "fighting freemasonry".

When the Liberation came, Hersant was himself pilloried and condemned to 10 years of national indignity, a sanction reserved for French people who had collaborated with the enemy. Following an amnesty four years later, Hersant could enter public life again.

While compiling a car an-nual, he spotted a gap in the French magazine market and in 1949 he launched Auto-Journal, which targeted car-owners enjoying their first taste of the open road. The publication was an unqualified success (its circulation increased tenfold to 300,000 in the space of three years) and set him on the road to greater riches. In 1952, Hersant started the daily Oise-Matin, which gave him a platform to get back into politics.

The following year, he became mayor of Ravenel and, in 1956, he stood for parliament in the Oise department; under the wing of President Pierre Mendes-France and Francois Mitterrand's UDSR (Union Democratique et Socialiste de la Resistance), he was duly elected. For different reasons, both Hersant (an advocate of the free market) and Mitterrand shared a dislike of General de Gaulle's dirigiste tendencies and in 1965, Hersant provided financial backing for Mitterrand's first bid for the French presidency. Though unsuccessful, this cheeky attempt forced de Gaulle to fight a second round and established Mitterrand as a politician of national stature, and, after two more setbacks, he eventually entered the Elysee in 1981.

By then Hersant, who had once been quite happy to take advantage of the Communist vote to get re-elected under the aegis of Mitterrand's FGDS (Federation de la Gauche Democratique et Socialiste), had moved across to Valery Giscard D'Estaing's UDF (Union Democratique Francaise), on the right of centre.

He was out of favour with the Oise electorate between 1978 and 1986 but was back at the National Assembly for two years after that. In 1984, he became a Member of the European Parliament, achieving the dubious honour of one of the most dismal attendance records in Strasbourg (a survey showed he had turned up just 10 times in 284 days, and unkind critics muttered about his need for parliamentary immunity).

However, this rather sketchy political career, worthy of a Vidkun Quisling, was eclipsed by Hersant's many business achievements. In 1955, following the launch of Oise-Matin, Hersant started L'Equipement Menager and Le Quincailler and capitalised on France's consumer boom of the late Fifties. He then set up the Publiprint press agency and, in 1958, he began acquiring French newspapers left, right and centre. This soon earned him the nickname of "Papivore" (a pun on carnivore and papier, meaning paper-eater) as he ruthlessly cut jobs, at one time merging four regional titles to create Centre-Presse. Over the next 35 years, the Hersant strategy paid off as his Socpress and Groupe France-Antilles companies bought Paris-Normandie, Le Dauphine Libere, Le Courrier de L'Ouest, Le Progres Lyon-matin and Les Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace.

The French are not keen newspaper readers (the biggest sellers barely reach the 500,000 mark), but the regional press is far more important in France than in the UK. However, Hersant's increasing grip on the market soon obliterated any semblance of diversity and was never properly brought to book under France's press monopoly laws, even though the combined readership of all his titles nudged 3 million.

This might have had something to do with the press baron's purchase in 1975 of Le Figaro, a Paris (and thus national and influential) paper which had moved a long way right from its satirical origins and was badly in need of new blood and an injection of cash. Always one for cost-cutting, Hersant moved the paper further to the right and away from its expensive Champs-Elysees premises. He also set up regional presses to improve distribution and take on the regional competition head on.

Over the years, and taking a leaf out of the British press, he added sections and sup- plements like Figaro Magazine, Madame Figaro, Le Figaro Economie, Le Figaro Litteraire, Figaroscope, TV Magazine and, just recently, Le Figaro Multimedia. In 1976, Hersant tightened his hold over the Paris market with the purchase of L'Aurore and France-Soir, which became a Sun-like counterpart to his Figaro/Times. With its screaming headlines and sensationalistic pictures, this popular paper always rose to the British tabloids' Frog- baiting.

There were ill-fated moves into radio and television, especially an attempt with Silvio Berlusconi to establish a fifth French terrestrial television channel, La Cinq. The two men never saw eye to eye and their venture only lasted from 1987 to 1990 and was an unqualified fiasco (game shows galore) which wouldn't have passed a British-style quality threshold.

The early Nineties saw Hersant concentrate on his press empire and take full advantage of new printing and computing technology. He looked abroad, acquiring a stake in the Brussels daily Le Soir and also investing in Poland (Rzescpospolita, the "Republic", the first Polish daily), the Czech Republic and Hungary.

However, Hersant's reliance on bank loans to finance his takeovers left his group exposed (with reported debts of 6 billion francs) and, when the circulation of some of his papers started to dwindle, he had to sell 10 of his more profitable magazines (including his beloved Auto-Journal) to the conglomerate Emap. His empire is now likely to be broken up.

A keen admirer of Lord Beaverbrook, Robert Hersant was a pragmatist and claimed he was just giving readers what they wanted. He didn't interfere in the daily running of Le Figaro and France-Soir, which leant to the right, but the hagiographic tributes in Monday's and Tuesday's editions of the papers left a yawning gap where his shameful war record should have been exposed.

Jean D'Onnesson, a French intellectual and member of the Academie Francaise who was at Le Figaro when Hersant bought the paper and became a friend, remembers him "not as a newsman who owned newspapers but as a media entrepreneur. He had a very powerful press group and he considered newspapers as a business."

Robert Hersant's death marks the end of an era. Hopefully, a more pluralist French newspaper industry will rise from his ashes.

Robert Joseph Emile Hersant, publisher and politician: born Vertou, France 31 January 1920; married (eight children); died Saint- Cloud 21 April 1996.

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