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Inside Move: Lagardere takes shot at Viv U’s pubs

Political, cultural establishments hostile to outsider takeover

Foreign bidders were gnashing their teeth last week as France’s Lagardere Group played defender of Gallic culture in a last-minute lunge for Vivendi Universal Publishing’s French assets.

The powerful armament and media group’s generous offer to rescue Paris’ publishing houses from the jaws of the enemy could not have been better timed.

France’s political and cultural establishments had already spelled out their hostility to outsiders (“American pension funds or asset strippers,” in the words of Culture Minister Jean Jacques Aillagon) swallowing up imprints like Larousse — publisher of the ubiquitous Petit Larousse dictionary, or Plon, Charles de Gaulle’s publisher.

The word in Paris was that even if Viv U would rather offload its entire publishing arm to a single buyer, bringing in an estimated $3 billion in one fell swoop, Lagardere’s bid for just the French assets was supported in the highest echelons of French politics, right up to President Jacques Chirac.

Boss Jean-Luc Lagardere delivered an impassioned front-page editorial in Le Monde pleading, “It is indispensible to protect this culture, to guarantee its independence and its originality.”

Such posturing was greeted with mirth in the Gallic book biz. “It’s funny to see him posing as the savior of French publishing, when an acquisition like this would create an industry behemoth,” says one cynic.

Lagardere is already a big fish in the publishing pond, not only in France but globally via Hachette Filipacchi. The world’s biggest magazine publisher’s array of titles include Elle, Car and Driver and Premiere. In France, Hachette is the second biggest publisher of books after VUP.

Indeed, some speculate that Lagardere’s bid for VUP was nothing more than a sneaky way of getting a peek at its competitor’s books.

In any case, pressure from the banks to make a quick killing on the whole publishing division may yet force Vivendi Universal chief Jean-Rene Fourtou to go with one of the investment fund consortia circling the biz.

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