Journalists in battle for the soul of 'Le Figaro'

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The Independent Online

Battle is about to be joined between the French warplane-maker Serge Dassault and journalists at Le Figaro for the soul of France's only conservative daily newspaper.

Battle is about to be joined between the French warplane-maker Serge Dassault and journalists at Le Figaro for the soul of France's only conservative daily newspaper.

M. Dassault, 79, who became de facto proprietor of Le Figaro in March, is accused of wanting to censor his own newspaper and turn it into a mouthpiece for his political views and commercial interests.

On Monday, Figaro journalists are expected to approve, by secret ballot, a resolution asking M. Dassault - who also controls the group which makes the Mirage and Rafale military aircraft - to back away from a number of belligerent statements and actions of recent weeks. If he refuses, the journalists threaten to expose, in rival newspapers if need be, any action by M. Dassault which undermines the independence of Le Figaro.

M. Dassault, son of the legendary founder of the Dassault Aviation group, Marcel Dassault, has made it clear that he, not the editors or reporters, should be the final judge of what news is safe, or desirable, to print.

He told Le Figaro's "society of journalists" last month: "There can be news stories which cause more harm than good. There can be a risk that the commercial and industrial interests of our country are placed in danger." The industrialist and politician - the fifth richest man in France - is already said to have interfered in the day-to-day editing of the newspaper at least three times.

Le Figaro (circulation 270,000) is an aggressively conservative newspaper which has always beaten the drum for centre-right policies and politicians and especially for President Jacques Chirac. Its news coverage has, however, become much more thorough and independent in the past decade.

The Dassault and Chirac families have been close for more than 70 years. M. Chirac's father worked for Serge Dassault's father, Marcel. In the 1970s and 1980s, the elder Dassault was a leading financial backer of M. Chirac's first political party, the RPR, which he once described as his "dancing girl". Journalists believe that M. Dassault may now want a "dancing girl" of his own.

M. Dassault's takeover of Le Figaro has raised fears that the French press is falling under the control of the political-military-industrial establishment. The Lagardère group, formerly Matra and a shareholder in European Airbus, already owns the Hachette empire. It is also the biggest book publisher, book distributor and newsagent. With Dassault's takeover of Socpresse, three-quarters of the press is run by two military-industrial groups, posing the question: is French press freedom about to become a "mirage"?

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