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Billionaire 'French Murdoch' is building his own right-wing media empire

Vincent Bollore arrives for a hearing on the concentration of media ownership at the French Senate in Paris. Bloomberg photo by Nathan Laine.

Vincent Bollore arrives for a hearing on the concentration of media ownership at the French Senate in Paris. Bloomberg photo by Nathan Laine.

Published Jul 25, 2022

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The seven-part 2019 American television series "The Loudest Voice" on Roger Ailes, the mastermind behind the rise of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News into a powerhouse of right-wing politics in the U.S., found an avid viewer in France: billionaire Vincent Bollore.

The series resonated with the French media baron, a person close to him said. Bollore has taken his own CNews TV channel sharply to the right by tapping into the formula that's paid off handsomely for Murdoch - catering to conservative audiences deemed to be under-served by the mostly left-leaning mainstream media. As Bollore takes that winning blueprint to his ever-expanding media empire, he's being dubbed the "French Murdoch.''

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Armed with more than 12 billion euros ($12.2 billion), Bollore, 70, is beefing up his media presence across Europe and beyond. His holding company, Bollore SE - a sprawling 20 billion-euro conglomerate that effectively controls media giant Vivendi, with its film and TV company Canal+, news channel CNews and Hachette, the world's third-largest publishing house - is adding operations in news, magazines, pay-TV, cinema and broadcast. Best known in France as an uncompromising corporate raider, Bollore says his media strategy is driven purely by business metrics. But many see a deeply conservative ideological agenda.

"While Rupert Murdoch always acknowledged he was pursuing ideological goals on top of business, Bollore is well known as a Catholic, a conservative, but was not engaged in an ideological fight," says Alain Minc, Bollore's one-time business adviser who has now parted ways with him. "He has recently switched."

Bollore turned down requests for an interview on his media operations, while Vivendi declined to comment on the billionaire's plans for the group's expansion.

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Like Murdoch, who began by rattling the power structure in his native Australia, Bollore waded into the French political arena during the presidential election in April, with his media machine backing Eric Zemmour, an anti-immigrant, ultra-right candidate. Zemmour campaigned to keep France firmly rooted in its Catholic heritage and touted the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, a radicalized view that white Christians are being supplanted by Muslim immigrants from Africa and elsewhere. Although he was knocked out of the first round of the elections, coming in a distant fourth, Zemmour's views have found their way into the political conversation in France - thanks in no small part to Bollore's influential media outlets, where they got ample airing.

Zemmour, who was a panelist on Bollore's CNews before running for president, said in a TV interview that the billionaire "is very aware of the danger of civilization that's threatening us, of the replacement of civilization. He wants to bequeath to his children and grandchildren the France that was bequeathed to him."

Although Bollore has yet to make inroads in the political arena outside his home market of France - like Murdoch did in the U.K. and the U.S. - the French billionaire is finding other ways to influence the social discourse in Europe, Africa and elsewhere.

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Not unlike Murdoch's News Corp, which over the decades brought its cultural products to over 100 countries, Bollore is weaving together assets that can carry immense influence in the markets he serves. Since taking over control of Vivendi's struggling film and TV arm Canal+ about six years ago, he has made it a Netflix-like platform and bought rivals in Europe, Africa and Asia, giving it almost 24 million subscribers in over 40 countries - as many as Sky, the British peer founded by Murdoch and bought by Comcast for $39 billion in 2018.

Bollore has entered the same segments that at one point gave News Corp its media breadth, everything from film production and distribution, TV and broadcasting, advertising, newspapers and magazines to books and music. Like the Murdoch empire's tendency to support right-wing ideologies and promote conservative ideas, there's an active tilt toward "God and country'' at the media taken over by Bollore.

As he expands into markets like Austria, Belgium, Poland and other countries in Europe, the traditionalist turn at his media outlets in France may show what lies ahead for his international platforms. Conservative programing has crept into the channels of the once-iconoclastic Canal+. In addition to far-right leaning debates, CNews now live-streams a Catholic mass on religious holidays. On C8, a general channel under Canal+, a controversial anti-abortion film "Unplanned" was broadcast at prime time last year despite opposition from President Emmanuel Macron's minister for women's rights.

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This month, Paris Match, the influential French magazine Vivendi took over when it bought control of rival media group Lagardere, put a relatively obscure, ultra-conservative cardinal, Robert Sarah, from Guinea on its cover. Sarah has in the past come down strongly against "western ideologies over homosexuality and abortion and Islamic fanaticism."

The shift in the narrative that Bollore is trying to bring about has raised hackles in France. Journalists have protested. At book-publishing unit Hachette, which includes Little, Brown and Co. in the U.S. and Hodder & Stoughton in the U.K., some high-profile French authors are leaving.

"Hachette falling under Vincent Bollore's control is a worrying signal knowing what happened to the other media he manages, with their editorial freedom in danger," said Fabrice Lhomme, a reporter at the French newspaper Le Monde and co-author of best-selling books on the country's politics. He and other French authors like Virginie Grimaldi and Jacques Attali have fled Hachette's publishing house Fayard.

Bollore brushes aside critics, saying his media outlets are politically diverse and even carry works by far-left French politician Jean-Luc Melenchon. At a French Senate hearing in January on his growing influence, the billionaire insisted his political clout is marginal.

"It's a uniquely economic project," he said. "Our interest is neither political nor ideological."

Bollore is relatively new to the media business. Born in a wealthy Paris suburb, he comes from a family that created a paper manufacturer 200 years ago in the town of Ergue-Gaberic in Brittany, on the western tip of France. He began his career as a banker and joined Edmond de Rothschild before overhauling the struggling family paper factory and listing it. Bollore quickly earned the moniker "Le Smiling Killer" in the French media as he stealthily bought stakes in companies including Lazard, Havas, Ubisoft and Bouygues. Over the years, his group has grown, giving him a net worth of about $6.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Bollore's media forays have been driven by his deep Catholic faith and his desire to preserve a certain idea of France and Europe, people close to him say.

His penchant for tradition was on full display on the sunny but chilly morning of Feb. 17 as the Bollore holding company celebrated its bicentenary at the Kerdevot Chapel, a Gothic church in the Brittany countryside. About 200 Parisian executives in suits were squeezed into the shrine as Bollore entered in an elaborately embroidered local costume - complete with a flat, black hat.

As bodyguards in leather jackets lined the porch and a band played old Celtic tunes, three of Bollore's four children, Yannick, Marie and Cyrille, walked ahead of him, with the men wearing outfits similar to their father's. Cyrille carried a large, gilded cross. The family sat in the first pew facing an altar with 200 candles as a hymn praising the Virgin Mary brought tears to Bollore's eyes.

In a brief interview as he herded his guests toward buses that took them to his ancestral manor on the banks of the River Odet for some local shrimps, Bollore said, "We are here for this mass because this is how it started - same place, same family, 200 years of history."

Bollore says he wants to create a Latin-culture Netflix to ensure European voices are not drowned out.

"Versailles and Clovis are more interesting than Superman 2, 3 and 4," he told French senators. "Alongside American soft power, and its content, alongside Asian content, which is increasingly present, European content brings a certain freshness, no doubt very interesting to conserve for the sake of our past, but above all to export. We want to create a champion of European and French culture."

Canal+ is developing a series on Marie-Antoinette, France's best-known royal, as well as one based on Italian comic-book character Corto Maltese. Paddington Bear - the fictional bear from Peru created by British writer Michael Bond whose rights were acquired by Vivendi in 2016 - has been one of the group's superstars. Like many Disney creatures, the fluffy bear has turned into a money spinner for Vivendi, with feature films, music scores, books, games and communication campaigns - it even became an attraction at a German theme park.

Over the last few years, Bollore has accelerated media purchases, seeking to create a European empire that will rival Netflix and Walt Disney by controlling large chunks of the continent's content and their delivery. His group wants to be among the world's top five paid-content providers by the end of this decade.

Bollore has a potential war-chest to pursue that ambition. He has shares valued at about 7 billion euros in Universal Music Group and will have another 5.7 billion euros from the sale of his group's African ports business to MSC, the world's second-biggest container line. In addition, Bollore SE and Vivendi had a combined 5.4 billion euros in credit lines at the end of 2021 for potential acquisitions, according to their annual reports.

In a March interview with Le Figaro newspaper, Canal+ Chief Executive Officer Maxime Saada said he's looking at between five and 10 targets worldwide. A key priority is tapping the world's more than half a billion Spanish speakers. An effort to buy Telefonica SA's unit Movistar, the largest subscription-TV provider in Spain, was recently rebuffed, although Bollore is still keen, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Canal+ also recently studied a potential deal with U.S. pay TV channel Starz and its associated streaming service Starzplay, a person familiar with the matter said. Owned by Lions Gate Entertainment, home to series such as Outlander and Power and blockbuster films like the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises, the services have more than 35 million global subscribers.

Bollore, who announced his retirement earlier this year, remains hands on. He chairs the weekly meeting of Vivendi's top executives at its headquarters off the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, commenting on films and series. He maintains the power to greenlight projects with his title at Vivendi of "Censeur" - which can mean both an adviser and a censor in French. He has not been coy about wielding that power in the past. A person with knowledge of the matter says he canceled financing for the movie "Grace a Dieu," something the company said was an editorial committee decision. The film, which depicted pedophilia in the French Catholic church, found other funding and won a Cesar - the top French movie award - for best picture in 2019.

While he can't control every aspect of his media business, he, like Murdoch, has put people who share his beliefs in key roles - like Christine Kelly, the star of one CNews's most successful panels. Also, with his views well known, there's a great deal of self-censorship, said Patrick Eveno, a media historian at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

"Bollore is operating in the globalized entertainment business, where you have to produce the content people want," but his ideology leads to people not putting forward projects they believe won't fit, he said.

Bollore's active role in strategic decisions makes it awkward for his children who have been assigned new roles in the group as part of a succession plan that began in 2018. His sixth-floor office, with a stunning view of the Arc de Triomphe, is now occupied by his son Yannick, the chairman of Vivendi's board. The younger Bollore has been careful to avoid taking a political stance or support Zemmour. When he took over his father's office, he kept the big burgundy leather sofas, but replaced a statue of Virgin Mary of Lourdes with modern artwork.

Still, with their father's business strategy paying off - like Murdoch's money-spinner Fox News, CNews is likely to break even in 2022 after years of losses - the children may not stray too far from their father's path.

"I hope I have pushed my successors to try and defend French culture," Bollore said during the senate hearing. "They assure me that's what they wish."

WASHINGTON POST

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