Bernard Arnault tightens grip on French media amid editor’s ‘brutal eviction’

·4-min read
Bernard Arnault - Graeme Critchley
Bernard Arnault - Graeme Critchley

Journalists at a French newspaper have accused its billionaire owner of ousting the editor and threatening its independence.

Reporters at Les Echos, which is owned by Bernard Arnault, the world’s richest man, have mounted a revolt over the departure of Nicolas Barré, who is leaving his role at the helm of the business daily after 10 years.

The Society of Journalists (SDJ), which represents staff at Les Echos, described Mr Barré’s departure as a “brutal eviction by the shareholder that is inconsistent with independence guarantees”.

“It is impossible not to wonder about the link between this departure and the publication in recent weeks of several articles that the shareholder might have disliked,” the SDJ added.

Reporters are understood to be pointing to two recent articles published in Les Echos.

Les Echos editor Nicolas Barré - Les Echos
Les Echos editor Nicolas Barré - Les Echos

One was about LVMH, Mr Arnault’s luxury goods empire, being raided by French tax authorities in 2019.

A source said it soon became clear that the story had “not gone down very well”. While the report appeared online, it did not feature in the newspaper.

The other was a positive review of a book that criticises Vincent Bolloré, the billionaire owner of media group Vivendi.

“The Story of an Ogre” by Erik Orsenna, the pen name of Érik Arnoult, a French politician and novelist, depicts an insatiable businessman devouring multiple businesses. While Mr Bolloré is not explicitly named, the fable has been widely linked to him.

Vivendi is currently in talks with rival media group Lagadere, in which Mr Arnault is a shareholder, about a takeover. The two billionaires have reportedly signed a “non-aggression pact” agreeing not to publish negative stories about each other.

Dior Paris store - iStock Editorial
Dior Paris store - iStock Editorial

Insiders at Les Echos pointed to other examples of editorial intervention in stories sensitive to Mr Arnault, whose luxury empire owns brands including Louis Vuitton, Dior, Tiffany and Moët Hennessy.

References to Mr Arnault were sometimes removed from coverage, while reporters writing stories about market capitalisation were told to emphasise LVMH’s dominance and downplay the size of energy giant Total, they claimed.

Staff also reported difficulties when writing about strikes at Europe 1, a radio station controlled by Lagadere.

One insider said: “We regularly have problems that LVMH is our owner, but now we have reached the climax.”

Journalists have launched a “byline strike” that will see reporters’ names removed from stories online for 24 hours and in Friday’s newspaper.

Insiders said the SDJ was not ruling out further action, including a full-blown strike.

LVMH bought Les Echos from British publisher Pearson in 2007, prompting a backlash from the SDJ, which was set up to protect editorial independence at the newspaper.

Under independence guarantees drawn up at the time of the takeover, any move to fire the editor must be approved by an oversight board, while the editorial board also has a veto over the choice of successor. The administrators of the oversight board are jointly chosen by Mr Arnault and the SDJ.

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr Arnault said Mr Barré had chosen to step down as editor and would take up a new role within the group.

He said: “Nicolas Barré has done a remarkable job over the years and the Groupe Les Echos-Le Parisien is happy that he will continue to bring his talent as an editorial writer and great journalist to France’s number one business newspaper.”

But the SDJ has argued that Mr Barré was in fact forced out without the approval of the oversight board, meaning the independence guarantees had been broken. It said that “no precise and solid reason” had been given for the decision.

Insiders added that the fact Mr Arnault had announced the departure himself – the second such intervention by the billionaire – was in itself a breach of editorial independence.

Leïla de Comarmond, president of the SDJ, said: “Our battle is clearly important in relation to the freedom of the press and its independence, so there is a democratic issue at stake.

“But it is also important because Les Echos is the only French business daily and its independence is an essential concern for the economic world.”

Mr Arnault’s growing control of media assets has sparked accusations the French tycoon is trying to buy political influence. LVMH also owns daily newspaper Le Parisien, while Lagadere controls gossip magazine Paris Match, which often features glossy pictures of French politicians.

The luxury goods chief has also been expanding his grip on business media through the recent acquisition of titles including, Investir and Mieux Vivre Votre Argent.

Les Echos and LVMH have been contacted for comment.