By Sarah White and Gwenaelle Barzic
PARIS (Reuters) – Two of France’s richest businessmen are close to a deal over media and publishing company Lagardere that would hit pause on their attempts to cherry-pick its assets for several years, three sources close to the discussions said on Sunday.
Vincent Bollore, the top shareholder in Lagardere via his Vivendi (OTC:VIVHY) group, and luxury goods tycoon Bernard Arnault, also a Lagardere investor, have been at the centre of a tussle over the firm and its influential media outlets for months.
The saga has transfixed top political circles in France a year ahead of a presidential election, with some in President Emmanuel Macron’s camp fearing that Bollore could seize assets like Lagardere’s Europe 1 radio and build up a powerful ring-wing outlet that would go against his campaign.
The three sources familiar with the talks said that Bollore, LVMH boss Arnault and Lagardere’s CEO Arnaud Lagardere are finalizing a deal that would include a five-year pact not to dismantle the company.
The details of the agreement and shareholder alliances as well as what would happen to some Lagardere assets, such as Europe 1 and the Journal du Dimanche (JDD) newspaper, have not yet been finalised, the people added.
They cautioned that the deal had not yet been signed and that the talks could come off the boil at the last minute.
Lagardere is due to hold a board meeting on Monday, the sources said.
Arnaud Lagardere, who runs the indebted company founded by his late father, would be ready to let go of an arcane “commandite” structure as part of the deal, the three sources added.
That set-up gave him the power of veto over many key decisions despite holding only 7% of the shares, and had been a major obstacle to any takeover attempts of the company.
ARNAUD AT THE HELM
The “commandite” has been the target of criticism from hedge fund Amber Capital, which has waged an activist campaign against Lagardere’s management over its governance.
Vivendi holds 27% of Lagardere, ahead of Amber with 20% and Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund with 13%, while Bernard Arnault has just under 8% and has also invested in Arnaud Lagardere’s personal holding company.
“This deal would help clarify the governance problem. There were two layers before, now there would only be one,” one of the people close to the talks said.
It is not yet clear, however, how the pact can be cemented to avoid takeover bids on Lagardere, including by Vivendi, and whether there will be get-out clauses. Sources have previously said that Amber and the Qataris are keen to eventually sell out.
Under the deal being discussed, Bollore could be a big winner. Vivendi could get three Lagardere board seats, one of the sources said.
Arnaud Lagardere would get to run the company for five years, the three source said. Les Echos newspaper reported on Saturday that his stake could also be increased to 14%.
Bernard Arnault had been keen to snap up the JDD newspaper or Paris Match magazine, sources previously told Reuters.
The truce would at least meet one of the billionaire’s goals, which had been to help Arnaud Lagardere keep his job at the top and avoid a full break-up of the group, another of the sources familiar with the talks said.
Arnault’s investment has so far been profitable, this second source said.
Bernard Arnault had been a close friend of the company’s founder, Jean-Luc Lagardere.
French billionaires eye truce in battle for Lagardere media group – sources