Villepin urged to save 'Libération' from crisis

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The Independent Online

Crisis meeting followed crisis meeting yesterday at the head office of Libération, the French newspaper founded by Jean-Paul Sartre which faces financial ruin.

So bleak has the outlook become that a radical left-wing magazine, Marianne, has already announced plans to launch a daily if Libération collapses. At the Senate, the president of the Socialist group, Jean-Pierre Bel, called on the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, to intervene to save the newspaper.

Libération, which currently sells about 135,000 copies every day, is expected to lose €13m this year and urgently needs new investment if it is to survive. But trade unions are opposed to a restructuring plan proposed by a minority Belgian shareholder which calls for up to 107 of the paper's 280 staff to be made redundant. Staff have already rejected a plan to axe 90 jobs, put forward by the biggest shareholder, the banker Edouard de Rothschild, who wants the paper to shift its focus to the internet and digitalise its photographic and archive departments. A more modest restructuring plan suggested by the staff - who hold 18.4 per cent of shares - has been rejected as unrealistic by Mr Rothschild and the board.

The crisis is the latest and most serious in Libération's rocky 33-year history. Created by Sartre and the journalist Serge July as a radical, four-page newssheet, the tabloid lost readers after it moved closer to the mainstream left wing in the Eighties. Successive relaunches failed to raise the circulation but its journalism, use of photography and design remained highly respected throughout Europe.

Last year, Mr Rothschild bought 38.8 per cent of the shares and injected €20m. This year, he sacked M. July, prompting the departure of several top journalists including the former Iraq hostage Florence Aubenas. The banker now refuses to invest more unless staff accept his retrenchment plan.

François Wenz-Dumas, spokesman for the journalists' union, said: "There were 340 of us at the beginning of February. If we accept the lastest proposal, we will be down to 180. That is totally unacceptable."

Libération's managing director, Vittorio de Filippis, said crisis meetings this week would look seriously at the latest cuts proposals and revise the amount of new investment needed. Next Monday, staff, unions and shareholders will attend a further board meeting - the fifth since September.

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