La Provence’s future at stake in a high-voltage board of directors

Will Xavier Niel use his veto right to oppose CMA CGM’s takeover of La Provence? This is the challenge of Monday’s board of directors, which could open a new front in the battle between these two economic giants.

For months, the global maritime transport giant and NJJ, the holding of Xavier Niel, founder of Free, have been fighting in court for control of the regional press group and its two leading newspapers, the newspapers La Provence and Corse Matin. .

The company, which employs around 850 people, is 89% owned by GBT, the holding company of former businessman Bernard Tapie, the remaining 11% already owned by NJJ, through its subsidiary Avenir Développement.

But GBT has been in compulsory administrative liquidation since 2020. The two liquidators are therefore involved in this battle, with one goal: to obtain the best selling price for this 89%, in order to be able to pay the creditors and therefore the State.

Following a second tender, only that of the Marseille shipowner, the highest bidder, was withheld by the liquidators: CMA CGM had put on the table 81 million euros, against “about” 20 million NJJ.

This offer has yet to pass the caudine of the board of directors: made up of five members, the latter must in fact unanimously approve the shipowner’s offer, by virtue of a so-called approval “, ie a right of veto.

Among them, two representatives of Avenir Développement, whose purchase offer was rejected by the liquidator, and three of GBT: Stéphane Tapie, eldest son of the entrepreneur who died in October, the managing director of La Provence Jean-Christophe Serfati and the secretary general of the Virginie Layani group.

– “Inextricable block” –

To obtain approval, provided for by the 1986 law which guarantees the independence of printing companies, each new entrant in the capital must comply with two conditions: “the principle of non-concentration of the press” and “the corporate interest of the company” , reminds CMA CGM to AFP, considering that its offer meets these two criteria.

“Our offer, maintains employment, maintains activities and has been validated by the six CSE (Social and Economic Committee, ed) of La Provence, five unanimously and the sixth with ten votes out of 14”, specifies the owner.

“The corporate interest of La Provence today is to have a new shareholder in good health who has received a favorable opinion from the CSE”, another source aware of the matter slipped to AFP.

In the event of rejection of the offer by the directors of Avenir Développement, the shadow of the conflict of interest would return to weigh on the file. This is also what motivated the suspension of the right of approval of Xavier Niel, both a minority shareholder of La Provence and a candidate for acquisition, by the Commercial Court of Marseille in January.

If the Aix-en-Provence Court of Appeal then overturned this decision, it also acknowledged that there was “indisputably” a “conflict of interest” for Avenir Développement.

Therefore, Xavier Niel’s use, by some deemed abusive, of its veto right, could lead the judicial liquidators to take legal action, or even to withdraw the GBT shares from the sale. With the risk of company bankruptcy.

For many employees, a blocking of the CMA CGM offer would still be synonymous with new delays in a sale that has already been pending for months.

“If it is not approved, it starts again with an inextricable stalemate”, fears Sophie Manelli, elected to the National Union of Journalists (SNJ). However, “we don’t have time to wait anymore, we really need a buyer, investments, a course,” she adds.

Like SNJ, the inter-union FO-CGT of Corse Matin and La Provence and the FOSNPEP trade union call the directors to their responsibilities, asking them to approve the shipowner’s offer.

CFDT, CGT, CFE-CGC and FO Livre would have preferred to be able to compare the two purchase offers. “It is wrong to say that all employees and even a large majority would be in favor of the CMA CGM offer,” anticipates Marie-Cécile Bérenger, CFDT representative.

The fact remains that “if Xavier Niel really has the will to acquire La Provence, he can do it, even by approving the offer”, according to a source expert on the subject: “He can both approve and acquire the newspaper, making use of his right of pre-emption “, which allows him to win the bet, on condition, however, to equal the price of his competitor.

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