The French aviation giant Dassault has as good as taken control of Socpresse, the media group that owns the legendary newspaper Le Figaro. Although it won't be official until June, shareholders have agreed a deal to raise Dassault's stake in Socpresse from 30 per cent to more than 80 per cent. And for the company boss, Serge Dassault, the move isn't just business - it's personal.
Serge's father Marcel Dassault, who built the eponymous defence company, liked to dabble in print. He launched La Semaine de France in 1952, but it lasted only seven months. His second effort, Jours de France, which hit newsstands in 1954, was more successful. The mass-market daily sold 500,000 by the end of the 70s. He died in 1986, and the newspaper died with him.
One source close to Dassault says: "Jours de France was extremely light-hearted and populist. It was the paper they gave you to read at the hairdresser."
The general view is that Dassault has long dreamed of paying homage to his father by acquiring a press group. Now, it looks like he has succeeded.
At a meeting in January, practically all of the descendents of Le Figaro's late owner, the publisher Robert Hersant, agreed to sell their shares to Dassault.
In reality, they had little choice. Dassault took a 30 per cent share of Socpresse in 2002, while lending the company around 230 million euros to buy the news magazines L'Express and L'Expansion from the troubled Vivendi. Under the terms of the deal, the debt was to be repaid in either cash or equity by the end of March 2004.
"There was never any doubt that Socpresse was going to have to pay in equity," one analyst says. Although as a privately owned concern Socpresse does not publish its figures - indeed, it communicates very little - the analyst believes the company is worth about 1.2 billion euros, not including Groupe Express-Expansion.
Dassault's triumph was not announced with a fanfare, a press conference or even a detailed press release. Instead, journalists received a short communique informing them that "following an accord with the majority of the descendents of Monsieur and Madame Hersant" Dassault's stake in the company would rise to 82 per cent by the summer.
Some reporters found the news disquieting. Dassault, after all, sells commercial and military jets and "defence systems". Lagardere, the French group that owns the magazine publisher Hachette Filipacchi, has a 15 per cent stake in EADS, another aviation and defence concern. That means companies with links to the defence industry own the two most important press groups in France.
"We are genuinely concerned about the threat to editorial independence," a spokesman from the USJ-CFDT, the journalists' union, says. "We are calling on the European Commission to look more closely at the consolidation of media ownership in the hands of major financial and industrial groups."
A reporter at Le Figaro's rival Le Monde points out that Dassault has been trying to get his hands on Le Figaro since 1999, when his offer was rebuffed by the Hersant family in favour of the investment group Carlyle. He also recalls that, during a TV interview on LCI that same year, Dassault said: "For me, it's important to own a newspaper, not only to express my opinion, but also to respond to journalists who tend to write whatever they like."
The 78-year-old Dassault has taken some time to achieve his goal, although his company already has a small media arm that owns two minor financial titles, a small monthly entertainment magazine and three regional newspapers. Socpresse will continue to be run as a separate entity, however.
Dassault has close links to the French government thanks to his friendship with the French president, Jacques Chirac. He has fended off pressure to nationalise Dassault Aviation while continuing to win lucrative contracts to supply jets and defence technology.
For the time being, there is no sign that Dassault wants to tamper with the editorial line of Le Figaro, which is, in any case, aimed at the right-wing business elite. One major buffer protecting the newspaper is its regal president, Yves de Chaisemartin, who will continue to own a 5 per cent stake in Socpresse along with other executives.
During a meeting of senior staff, "Chaise" commented: "We will work together to ensure the independence of this newspaper ... It has been so for two centuries, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that it remains so into the next century, no matter who its proprietor happens to be. We've already been owned by (the perfume company) Coty, (the publisher Pierre) Brisson and Robert Hersant, and there will probably be other owners in the future."
DASSAULT'S NEW ASSETS
Le Figaro (circulation: 340,493)
Le Figaro Magazine (circulation: 463,252)
Madame Figaro (circulation: 455,000)
Maison Madame Figaro (circulation: 82,000)
L'Express (circulation: 434,784)
L'Expansion (circulation: 154,543)
L'Enterprise (circulation: 84,946)
La Vie Financiere (circulation: 86,756)
Mieux Vivre Votre Argent (circulation: 223,068)
Lire (circulation: 100,000)
Paris Turf (circulation: 79,533)
TV Magazine (circulation: 4,804,033)
Plus seven regional newspapers including La Voix Du Nord (304,678)
Circulation figures: OJD Diffusion Controle.