Provence: the battle is relaunched

Justice has lifted the right of approval enjoyed by Xavier Niel as a minority shareholder. CMA CGM can rush into the breach, to try to take back the 89% stake held by Bernard Tapie in the Marseille newspaper.

The battle for control of daily life in Marseille Provence is relaunched. The Marseille commercial court on Tuesday lifted the authorization right enjoyed by Xavier Niel, as a shareholder up to 11% of Provence, on a possible buyer of the newspaper. The court was seized last month by the liquidator of the Bernard Tapie Group, Me Xavier Brouard, in order to guarantee the freedom of the judge-commissioner in the choice of the buyer of the regional daily.

But nothing is played. The boss of Free and a personal shareholder of the Le Monde group should appeal the decision to the Aix-en-Provence court of appeal. Even if he ultimately loses his authorization right, Xavier Niel has other cards in his game. He still holds a pre-emption right which allows him to buy back the titles of Provence at the same price as that offered by its competitor, the CMA-CGM group.

A first victory for Rodolphe Saadé

The decision of the Marseille court is a first victory for the boss of the Marseille shipowner, Rodolphe Saadé. Because, pending a possible appeal decision, it puts Xavier Niel on an equal footing with the potential buyers of the 89% of shares held by the late Bernard Tapie in Provence through its companies. The latter had been placed in liquidation in April 2020, after the cancellation of the arbitration in the Crédit lyonnais-Adidas case. One of the objectives of the judicial liquidator, who seeks to reimburse the State for the debt of 400 million euros left by Bernard Tapie, is to obtain the best price for the repossession of Provence.

The newspaper was valued by two expertises at 40 million euros. Last December, CMA-CGM and Xavier Niel’s NJJ Presse group submitted financial offers in envelopes to the Bobigny commercial court. The latter has planned to unseal the envelopes on February 27, unless he decides to wait for the decision of the Aix-en-Provence Court of Appeal. We will then see what the price CMA-CGM is ready to pay and whether Xavier Niel decides to line up or not.

At the request of the Public Prosecutor of Bobigny, a second liquidator, Me Marc Sénéchal, must be appointed Wednesday at the Commercial Court of Bobigny in order to support Me Xavier Brouard on this case considered complex.

Operation seduction

“We wanted the competition to play so that the takeover offer that wins is the best on the social side”, comments a union representative from Provence. In recent weeks, Rodolphe Saadé has launched a real operation to attract employees and decision-makers in the region. Tuesday, he again received the employees of the newspaper. Beyond the purchase price, the shipowner intends to invest 35 million euros, to develop the digital offer and build its own printing plant in Marseille. It also guarantees the preservation of 850 jobs.

His project received the support of major local economic players, such as the president of the Aix-Marseille-Provence metropolitan chamber of commerce, that of the Pays d’Arles chamber of commerce, the president of Aix-Marseille French Tech and that of the Confederation of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (CPME) of Bouches-du-Rhône. In this case, Rodolphe Saadé is advised by Mr.e Lionel Spizzichino (Willkie Farr) and Stéphane Fouks, vice-president of Havas. He also called on Denis Olivennes, DG of Liberation, to build a charter guaranteeing editorial independence.

On the side of Xavier Niel, a meeting is scheduled for Friday between the employees of the newspaper and Anthony Maarek, CEO of NJJ Presse, to detail the content of the offer in terms of financial investment. Also a shareholder of the Nice-Matin Group, Xavier Niel intends to build in the Var a printing plant common to both titles, by 2024. In addition, he recently granted a loan to Provence, as part of its forthcoming acquisition of 49% of the shares of the newspaper Corse-Matin, held by Corsica Maritima Holding (CMH). In 2020, the losses of Provence amounted to 7 million euros. To repay its debts, the daily sold its headquarters last year for 35 million euros. The editorial staff must pack up before 2023. In decline in recent years, the newspaper’s circulation is now 75,000 copies, according to the ACPM.

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