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Hersant, Dassault & Socpresse

Overview

This profile considers the Socpresse group of France, associated with the Hersant and Dassault families.


It covers -

  • introduction
  • Hersant and Socpresse
  • absorption by Dassault
  • structure
  • studies

Introduction

Socpresse encompasses around 80 daily/weekly newspapers and magazines in Belgium and metropolitan France and its territories (including New Caledonia and French Polynesia), along with minor radio and television interests - including some in the US.

It at one time had around 30% of French newspaper circulation and was thought to be poised to expand from television into other sectors and nations. After the death of its founder it spent time downsizing - selling stakes in ailing publications and disposing of units - before passing under the control of Serge Dassault.

Hersant and Socpresse

The group - centred on national newspaper Le Figaro - was founded by Robert Hersant. He had gained mild notoriety as an enthusiastic young editor for far-right publications in Paris during the German occupation and creator of the Jeune Front political party but benefitted from the collective amnesia that swept France from 1952.

In the mid 1950s he began buying provincial newspapers, particularly in the industrialised north and founded the best-selling magazine L'Auto Journal. His election to the French National Assembly in 1956 was disallowed but he subsequently became both a French MP and a Euro MP.

In the 1970s he bought Le Figaro and subsequently acquired Le Progrès de Lyon before buying papers in the French colonies and moving in and out of papers in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Figaro had earlier come under the sway of perfumier, horse owner and rightist François Coty and the textiles & publishing (Sept Jours, Paris-Match, Paris-Soir, Paris-Midi, Marie-Claire) magnate Jean Prouvost.

The ebbing of the Hersant tide - he had survived legislation designed to restrict his market share - apparently resulted from major losses relating to the La Cinq commercial television channel, meant to challenge Franco-Belgian broadcaster CLT.

La Cinq had initially been awarded to Silvio Berlusconi and Jérôme Seydoux's Pathé group. Hersant gained the Pathé stake in 1986 after a change of government.

Neither Hersant nor Berlusconi were able to make La Cinq into a licence to print money or indeed to stop it eating their funds. They eventually surrendered the licence. (It went to Havas, later a Vivendi subsidiary, which was equally unsuccessful.) US investor Carlyle took a stake in Le Figaro and associated publications.

Absorption by Dassault

In 2002 a restructure saw acquisition by Groupe Industriel Marcel Dassault (GIMD) - the Dassault family's holding vehicle - of a 30% stake in Socpresse (now the main Hersant family vehicle) and the sale to Socpresse of Carlyle's stake in that group.

That was followed by acquisition from Vivendi of its Groupe Express-Expansion (inc l'Express and l'Expansion) and Groupe l'Etudiant consumer press units and Comareg for €330 million. That acquisition was largely funded by a €230 million loan from Dassault.

In March 2004 that loan was converted into equity, following Socpresse's failure to make the repayment. That took Dassault's stake to around 50%. Several of the Hersant heirs then sold their Socpresse holdings to Dassault, which thereby increased its stake to around 82%. Le Monde, in noting that French newspaper publishing was now dominated by two aeospace giants - Dassault and Lagardère - asked

Is France returning to the bad old days [before the 1939-45 War] when newspapers were the dancing girls of billionaires?

Dassault dated from the airframe and avionics manufacturer established by entrepreneur Marcel Dassault (1892-1986) in 1945 after his return from Buchenwald. The group enjoyed considerable government support as a national champion under its founder and under his son Serge (1925- ). In contrast to other champions Dassault fended off full nationalisation; the French government sold its 46% stake in Dassault Aviation to state-owned defense group Aerospatiale in the 1990s.

In 1998 Belgium's highest court convicted Serge for paying a bribe in a 6.5 billion franc contract to re-equip Belgian F-16 fighters with new electronics. The affair included conviction of former NATO secretary-general, Willy Claes, to a three-year suspended prison term, with similar suspended sentences for former Socialist president Guy Spitaels and former Defense Minister Guy Coeme.

Serge Dassault had unsuccessfully sought to buy L'Express in 1997 and France Soir and Le Figaro in 1999. At that time he told the LCI cable channel

It is important for me to be the owner of a newspaper to express my opinion but also to respond to those journalists that write anything they want.

In 2001, in conjunction with his campaign for a seat in the French parliament, Serge's Spif publishing house acquired three newspapers from Semif, a subsidiary of Hersant's France Antilles group. Those titles were the Republicain de l’Essonne, Toutes les nouvelles de Versailles and Gazette du Val d’Oisein. Spif included the financial daily Le Journal de Finances, economic weekly magazine Valeurs Actuelles and film magazine Spectacle du Monde. The family also had multimedia interests.

The Dassaults acquired a substantial stake in the influential but low-profit Socpresse in 2002 and acquired a further 50% in 2004 when Hersant's heirs cashed in their holdings. 13% apparently remains in the hands of Hersant heir Aude Ruettard, with 5% held by Yves de Chaisemartin, the Socpresse CEO.

A chronology is here.

Structure

An indication of Socpresse holdings is here.

Studies

There is no major English-language biography of Robert Hersant or Marcel Dassault and his son Serge.

The major French works are Nicolas Brimo's Le Dossier Hersant (Paris: Maspero 1977), Marcel Dassault: la légende d'un siècle (Paris: Perrin) and Serge Dassault: 50 ans de defies (Paris: Perrin), both by Claude Carlier. Marcel’s autobiography - The Talisman (London: Arlington House 1971) - is triumphalist, offset by works such as Emmanuel Chadeau’s more searching De Bleriot a Dassault Histoire de l'industrie aeronautique en France, 1900-1950 (Paris: Fayard 1987).

Hersant appears in a short and positive profile by Nicholas Coleridge in Paper Tigers (London: Heinemann 1993) and in the intelligent, elegant The Vichy Sydrome (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1994) by Henry Rousso.

Richard Barbrook's Media Freedom: The Contradictions of Communications in the Age of Modernity (London: Pluto Press 1995) and Marc Martin's Medias et journalistes de la Republique (Paris: Editions Odile Jacob 1997) consider the French regulatory environment and media concentration. There's a more detailed account in the five volume Histoire Générale de la Presse Française (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 1969-1976) by Claude Bellanger, Jacques Godechot, Pierre Guiral & Fernand Terrou. Raymond Kuhn's concise The Media in France (London: Routledge 1995) is also of value.

Dan Briody's The Iron Triangle: Inside the Secret World of the Carlyle Group (New York: Wiley 2003) offers a journalistic and at times conspiracist account of Hersant's US partner. Prouvost was profiled by Marcel Haedrich in Citizen Prouvost: le portrait incontournable d'un grand patron de la presse française (Paris: Filipacchi 1995).