RSF calls on the European Commission to investigate “gun jumping” in Vivendi’s takeover of Lagardère

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for a thorough European Commission investigation into evidence that Vivendi, the French conglomerate owned by billionaire Vincent Bolloré, began taking control of French Lagardère group before the Commission approved Vivendi’s takeover. The Commission has just announced that it is looking into the possibility.

After an eight-month investigation in which Vivendi was forced to announce the sale of its publishing house Editis and its celebrity magazine Gala in order to address concerns about media ownership concentration, the Commission has finally decided that competition rules are being respected and that Vivendi’s takeover of Lagardère can go ahead.

But the major changes during the past 18 months within two of Lagardère’s media outlets, the weekly newspaper Journal du Dimanche (JDD) and, to an even greater extent, the magazine Paris Match, could be regarded as a premature takeover (“gun jumping”) under competition rules and, while this would not threaten the takeover, it could result in fines of up to 10% of Vivendi’s global turnover.

“We want to get to the bottom of it”

Many observers had expected that Vivendi’s alleged premature takeover of Lagardère would be included in the Commission’s investigation, of which the conclusions were released on 9 June. But it was not so. And in a confidential report of more than 300 pages that the Commission handed to Vivendi last February, and which RSF has seen, “gun jumping” was not on the list of grievances levelled against the Bolloré-owned group.

European Commission Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, who is also the European Commissioner for Competition, told BFM Business on 9 June that she had “begun an investigation” into these allegations that could take several months. Nothing official has so been announced and it is not clear when the investigation began. When questioned by RSF about this on 12 June, the Commission said it had not opened any formal investigation. Then, 48 hours later, it acknowledged that it was “interested in the subject.” A source within the Directorate-General for Competition finally confirmed that investigations have started. “We want to get to the bottom of it,” the source added. It’s about time.

“In view of the many signs attesting to Vincent Bolloré's growing hold over the Lagardère group's media before the takeover was approved, it is surprising that an investigation into a premature takeover was not launched earlier. Sources had mentioned the existence of an investigation into gun jumping, but this remains unclear. We call for the official launch of a serious, in-depth investigation led by the European Commission. This takeover was also a takeover of the independence of the media concerned.”

Christophe Deloire
RSF secretary-general

At Paris Match, it has been clear from the many signs of meddling that the required “standstill” – under which the new owner keeps a distance until the takeover is approved – has not been respected. Firstly, the workforce has been radically overhauled. More than 20 of the magazine’s 60 journalists have departed in recent months, either by choice or by force. One was on sick leave when she learned that she was being fired for questioning the magazine’s editorial policy and content. Now that the takeover has been approved, more are expected to leave under an employment contract clause that allows them to depart with severance pay when their media is sold or its main shareholder changes.

Some of the magazine’s leading journalists have been dismissed because they were deemed incompatible with a new owner with a reputation for meddling – a reputation that was shown to be justified in RSF’s documentary about Bolloré entitled “Le Système B.” Paris Match and JDD editorial director Hervé Gattegno was fired a few weeks after Paris Match published a cover photo of would-be presidential candidate Éric Zemmour and his adviser entwined in the sea. RSF has been told that Lagardère executive Arnaud Lagardère consulted Bolloré about the cover prior to publication. “OK, provided it's as less trashy as possible," he reportedly replied. Politics editor Bruno Jeudy was fired after criticising major editorial policy changes that closely matched the new owner’s aspirations and convictions. When Emmanuel Macron was reelected in May 2022, he did not make the Paris Match cover, becoming the first French president in the magazine’s history not to receive this acknowledgment.

Synergy and rapprochement

Should the gradual changes at Paris Match during the past 18 months be attributed to management zeal, or to interference by Bolloré and his representatives at Vivendi? This is what the European Commission will have to determine. Many Paris Match journalists interviewed by RSF mentioned the “obligatory” stories, the stories that were imposed from above. Such as the one about Cardinal Robert Sarah, an ultraconservative to whom the magazine devoted its cover and six inside pages in July 2022. They bore the by-line of Philippe Labro, a journalist who was Bolloré’s media adviser and who is still very close to him.

A few months before that, Paris Match ran a piece about a book by Bolloré’s brother, Michel-Yves Bolloré, in which he describes the “scientific” proofs of God’s existence. The article was written by Igor Bogdanov, who died a few weeks later from the consequences of Covid-19, as did his twin brother.

These patent changes in Paris Match’s editorial policy elicited repeated angry reactions from its journalists. In the summer of 2022, 97% of them voted for a motion condemning Jeudy’s dismissal, which they interpreted as “a warning to those who want to exercise their profession in complete independence.” They issued several press releases in the following months. In vain. In what journalists interviewed by RSF called a “witch-hunt atmosphere,” the new owner steadily tightened his grip on the magazine.

Editorial decision-making at Paris March has been subject to much stricter and more centralised control by the Lagardère group for more than a year. An insider said it is now normal for only a handful of people within the magazine to be kept in the loop on certain stories and the cover story. On Tuesday mornings, just hours before the closing of the week’s issue, even editorial director Patrick Mahé is not always able to confirm the cover page story “without referring to those above,” the same source said.

“Alternative editorial conferences” to discuss the cover story and other stories are held on Thursdays at Lagardère headquarters before the magazine’s editors meet at midday on Fridays. The Thursday meetings are attended by the management of Paris Match and that of Lagardère, which is represented by Constance Benqué and Arnaud Lagardère himself. Has Vivendi also been participating in these weekly decision-making meetings, as some media reports have said?

Making room for our “cousins”

RSF has been told that the senior staff at Vivendi and Lagardère began cooperating closely as early as 2021. Maxime Saada, the chair of the executive board at the Vivendi-owned TV broadcaster Canal+ and a confidant of Vincent Bolloré, was put in touch with Paris Match’s management. He quickly emerged as the "new strong man" long before the takeover was approved. He was discreet and took care not to go to Paris Match’s editorial offices, but he let it be known that the aim is to make  Paris Match “a magazine that turns the spotlights on Canal+.”

A wish that was quickly realised. Paris Match journalists are now often invited to speak on the Canal+ group 24-hour news channel CNews, as former Paris Match reporter Émilie Blachère pointed out in Les Jours. The Venice film festival, which Canal+ now covers after losing the Cannes film festival, is suddenly receiving attention from Paris Match. The nature and extent of these synergies will have to be analysed by the Commission to establish whether they prove a premature takeover. If they do, the fine could amount to more than 1 billion euros.

The plan to move the editorial staff of CNews to the building currently occupied by Lagardère’s media has also been clearly "anticipated." As early as  March 2023, Paris Match’s employees were invited to vacate the second floor, and preparations quickly got under way for the arrival of the  journalists of the Bolloré-owned channel, described as “our cousins” in Paris Match management committee meetings. In an email seen by RSF, which predates the takeover’s approval, CNews employees were asked to specify their preferred method of transport as part of the plan to move to the building on Quai André Citroën that currently houses Europe 1, JDD and Paris Match and was once the headquarters of Canal+. CNews plans to join them there by the end of the year. 


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