PARIS, France — As billionaire Bernard Arnault made global headlines last month for his attempt to extricate his luxury empire LVMH from a $16 billion deal to buy US jeweller Tiffany & Co., a smaller transaction by Europe’s wealthiest man back home in France went largely unnoticed.
Arnault’s investment group acquired a more than 5 percent stake in Lagardere SCA, once a sprawling conglomerate covering everything from cars and planes to space that’s now focused on media, publishing and retail outlets at airports and train stations. The purchase is a precursor to Arnault’s group playing a greater role in those activities, people familiar with discussions at the two companies said.
Why would Arnault, known as France’s most successful investment banker after he shrewdly acquired an armada of luxury brands — from Dior and Fendi to Louis Vuitton, Hennessy Cognac and Dom Perignon Champagne — want a piece of a struggling group like Lagardere?
For Arnault observers, it’s all about political influence.
Lagardere’s stable of media assets includes such French brands as Paris Match, a glossy photo magazine that has often boosted the chances of presidential hopefuls, the all-news radio station Europe 1 and the influential Le Journal du Dimanche weekly paper. While the media unit is losing money and carries little weight beyond France, within the country — where business and politics are intricately intertwined — it has clout.
Arnault’s formidable wealth — his net worth is about $86 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index — already makes him hugely influential in France. But having more pull never hurt anyone, said Remy Le Champion, the co-head of the French Press Institute’s journalism program at Paris-Assas University.
“Bernard Arnault has access to anyone he wants in the government,” he said. “Still, extremely rich people often have a hobby horse. The benefits brought by the ownership of a media largely make up for the relatively limited cost for a man whose net worth is 80 billion.”
Take the Tiffany case, for example. Arnault, who has been adding to his media assets over the years, was able to lean on the French government for help to pull out of the deal. LVMH secured a letter from Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that asked for a delay in the deal because of a US-France trade dispute, which the company cited as a reason for getting out.
LVMH denied it played a role in obtaining the letter, but Le Drian told parliament he had responded to a query from the company, and said in an interview that it’s his “duty to protect French interests,” effectively melding the company’s priorities with those of the country.
Arnault-controlled LVMH owns Les Echos, France’s main financial business daily and Le Parisien, Paris’s staple read. The classical music aficionado also controls Radio Classique, a station that covers news in its morning programs.
Being the owner of these newspapers gives him media clout, and that means you want him off your back.
“Being the owner of these newspapers gives him media clout, and that means you want him off your back,” said Julia Cage, a professor of economics at Sciences Po in Paris, referring to the Le Drian letter.
The Lagardere stake purchase will allow the billionaire to deepen his media presence and also forge closer ties between similar businesses at the two companies, analysts at Oddo BHF wrote in a note. LVMH owns the duty-free store network DFS, and has a stake in Madrigall group, owner of Gallimard, the publisher of authors like Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano.
Arnault also plans to buy a 40 percent stake in the press group behind the influential business magazine Challenges, its chief Claude Perdriel told Le Monde this month.
“Having media assets owned by industrial figures, even if they aren’t interventionist, fosters distrust and doubt,” said Cage, who chairs a Le Monde readers’ association, adding that it gives them an “outsized” influence over the government.
Arnault isn’t the only French billionaire investing in media assets. Telecom moguls Martin Bouygues and Patrick Drahi respectively control or own broadcaster TF1 and 24-hour news channel BFM TV, while Xavier Niel co-owns the daily, Le Monde. The Dassault industrial family owns Le Figaro newspaper while Vincent Bollore with his eponymous group owns a controlling stake in Vivendi SA’s CNews TV network as well as a stake in Lagardere.
The internet era has disrupted the media business, shrinking its client-base and advertising revenue and driving it into the arms of rich patrons for life support. In the past decade, the circulation of Lagardere’s Paris Match — once France’s best-selling news magazine — has dropped by 100,000 to just over 500,000.
For Arnault, who has bankrolled a range of activities in France — pledging 200 million euros for the rebuilding of the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral gutted in a fire last year and hosting contemporary art exhibitions at his Fondation Louis Vuitton — the Lagardere stake purchase is also a way to support a once-storied French industrial group.
The conglomerate was started by Jean-Luc Lagardere, who was Arnault’s tennis partner until his death in 2003. It has been in troubled waters, with Jean-Luc’s son, Arnaud Lagardere, assailed by activist investor Amber Capital for more than two years over bad governance.
The investment “underscores our attachment to the integrity and development of” Lagardere, Groupe Arnault said in its statement on September 24. It declined to comment on Arnault’s media ambitions or on analysis suggesting it was aimed at buying political influence.
The billionaire’s push for media assets is less about making money and more about controlling the narrative at home, said Paris-Assas’s Le Champion.
In 2016, a controversy emerged when Les Echos and Le Parisien chose not to publish a review of the documentary “Merci Patron” (Thanks Boss). The documentary by Francois Ruffin, a left wing activist-turned-member-of-parliament, was a critique of LVMH and the power of the wealthy. A year later, Les Echos journalists criticised an editorial decision to take out Ruffin’s name from a piece written by a columnist.
That said, many at Arnault-owned publications say there have been few examples of censorship. Pierre Louette, the chief executive of the Les Echos-Le Parisien group, characterised its ties with the owner as “natural, fluid and normal.”
Still, Les Echos treaded lightly on the issue of whether LVMH had leaned on the government to pull out of the Tiffany deal, saying instead that it was “collateral damage” in the trade war between France and the US.
“I don’t think anyone is picking up the phone and complaining to reporters when Bernard Arnault doesn’t like a story in Les Echos,” Le Champion said. “Rather, we’re talking about subtle influence, assumptions, self-imposed limits.”
By Ania Nussbaum, Angelina Rascouet and Helene Fouquet.