Nice (AFP)

Xavier Niel, founder of Free (Iliad group) and co-owner of the newspaper Le Monde, announced Friday he took control of the 34% of Nice-Matin held by the Belgian group Nethys, he had been fighting for several days with the French mogul. -Libanese Iskandar Safa, owner of Current Values.

The formalization of the 51% takeover of Avenir Développement, the holding company of the Belgian group Nethys, which owned this 34% of the regional daily since 2016, took place even though the approximately 450 employee shareholders of Nice-Matin, owners of the other 66% of capital through a SCIC in which they had invested their 13th month in 2014, met in a general meeting in Nice.

In his statement, via his personal holding NJJ, Mr. Niel said it was agreed with Nethys to acquire "in a short time" the remaining 49% stake in Avenir Développement.

Theoretically, this acquisition offers the full capital of Nice-Matin in the medium term: under the shareholders' agreement uniting Avenir Développement and the SCIC Nice-Matin, Avenir Développement will have to acquire the 66% remaining on February 1, 2020 , for a price of about 925,000 euros, specifies a letter from his personal holding NJJ signed by the businessman sent Thursday. At this date, Xavier Niel will therefore potentially own 100% of the newspaper's capital.

In his letter sent to the cooperators of SCIC, to Jean-François Roubaud, the chairman of the supervisory board of the Nice-Matin group, and to Jean-Marc Pastorino, chairman of the executive board, Mr Niel said he was "open to renegotiation of terms of this redemption, including a higher price ". It also stresses that employees who wish to remain shareholders could do so, via the SCIC or another structure, up to 10 to 20% maximum.

At the announcement of the boss of Free, the other candidate for the resumption of the 34% of Nethys, Iskandar Safa, the tycoon of the shipyards, was in full presentation of his project in front of the employees of the newspaper.

- "Attention to the mirage Niel" -

This announcement of the businessman puts an end to a serial started in early March with the opening of a procedure for safeguarding the newspaper, and at the request of its leaders, tired of the Belgian shareholders of Nethys, qualified as "absent".

Initially, it is Iskandar Safa, very invested on the Côte d'Azur, who seemed to hold the rope to succeed Nethys. But the cards were rebutted mid-June, when Xavier Niel announced to have entered into exclusive negotiations with Nethys. A state of affairs that the direction of Nice-Matin ensured the next day, June 17, "not to have been informed".

"This is not the best entry to validate a new shareholder," said AFP Nice-Morning CEO Jean-Marc Pastorino: "I have only one offer in hand (the one Mr. Safa), not two, "he insisted.

"Attention to the mirage Niel, we must remain cautious and get guarantees," had reacted on his side the SNJ, observing "some form of enthusiasm in the editorial": "It is high time to stop the game dupes (...) Journalists do not want to be manipulated by one side or the other ".

In his letter of Thursday to Nice-Matin, Mr. Niel said he contacted "directly" the leaders of the newspaper in mid-January. Then mid-June again. And Tuesday one last time: nobody "returned our calls, nor answered our messages," according to the businessman.

At one year of municipal elections, with a possible duel between Christian Estrosi, the mayor LR of the city, and his former gray eminence, Eric Ciotti, the takeover of Nice-Matin is carefully scrutinized on the Cote d'Azur.

Already candidate for the resumption of Nice-Matin in 2014, with other partners, Mr. Safa is related to the Leroy family, who has been running the town hall of Mandelieu-La Napoule for nearly 25 years and embodies the hard wing of the right LR, the tendency of the deputy Ciotti. Mr. Niel, he is often presented as close to Emmanuel Macron. Mr. Estrosi, labeled "Macron-compatible", also called the Republicans in early June to work in "coalitions with the presidential majority."

© 2019 AFP