Q&A: Jérôme Lefilliâtre on the Czech oligarch cornering the French media market

In the spring of 2018, Daniel Křetínský, a billionaire from the Czech Republic, agreed to acquire a group of French magazines, including Elle, the famous fashion and lifestyle publication. After that he bought Marianne, an important political weekly. In a matter of days, and from nowhere, Křetínský had built a mini media empire in France. He was only just getting started. 

A few months later, a journalist at Le Monde, the flagship French daily, learned in the course of his reporting that Křetínský was buying a stake in the paper’s parent company. Le Monde’s journalists, who co-own the paper in a delicate power balance with private shareholders, were affronted—Křetínský’s failure to inform them of his interest, they felt, was the height of rudeness—and feared that their independence was at stake. The episode sparked a lengthy battle between the newsroom and the boardroom. One year (and an unprecedented open letter signed by hundreds of journalists) later, Le Monde’s major shareholders finally agreed (with some conditions) to give staff veto power over significant new investors. (Currently, Křetínský owns a minority of a minority stake in the paper.)

PREVIOUSLY: At Le Monde, journalists win a battle for editorial independence

At first glance Le Monde’s journalists had held off a hostile takeover bid from an unsavory suitor. Rumors had swirled about Křetínský’s possible links to Moscow, due, in large part, to his stake in a pipeline that carries Russian gas to Western Europe. (He co-owns the pipeline with the government of Slovakia, which itself hardly has a glowing record on press freedom.) More concretely, Křetínský is a climate skeptic, and has amassed a considerable fortune by trading in dirty energy; in recent years, he’s made a habit of salvaging dwindling, heavy-polluting coal infrastructure from bigger companies rushing to offload it. 

But in other ways Křetínský does not easily fit the stereotype of the oligarch. He’s fluent in French and claims to have a sincere affinity for the country; as a young man, he studied in Burgundy. He presents himself as a democrat who cares about press freedom and its creeping erosion, and as a pluralist who doesn’t interfere with journalism at his titles. (At Marianne, he installed a controversial populist commentator—whose views do not appear to align with his own—as editor.) He has railed publicly against big tech, which he has said is bad for the information landscape. In many ways, he’s an enigma. Since his arrival on the scene in France, journalists have wondered who Křetínský really is, and what he really wants. 

Last year, Jérôme Lefilliâtre, a media and business reporter at the French daily Libération, decided to find out. He wrote a book about Křetínský, Mister K, that was published in March. CJR spoke with Lefilliâtre on April 1—two days after Křetínský revealed that he’d tested positive for (and recovered from) COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus—about Křetínský’s background, investment strategy, and incursion into the French media landscape. Our conversation has been translated from French, and edited for length and clarity.

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Why did you decide to write a book about Daniel Křetínský?

We, in France, had never heard of Křetínský before the beginning of 2018. Never. He was unknown, except by a few experts in the energy sector. In 2018, in the space of a week, he became one of the biggest French media owners. I wanted to understand why he bought so many French magazines at the same time. It seemed like a coordinated, premeditated move.

I was also interested in Křetínský as a character. There’s obviously the question about the figure of the oligarch, of the billionaire who’s buying up the press. There are economic questions around him. There are questions about the manipulation of information. He made his fortune via a pipeline that takes Russian gas to Western Europe, so there’s the question of Russian interference. There are environmental questions, too. And he comes from what we, in France, would consider to be a small country—the Czech Republic only has about 10 million people—who’s investing in major French businesses. So there’s also the question of the decline of the old Western powers. All these big questions that obsess us today can be brought together in this one character.

I really decided to follow through with the book in September 2019. I went to Prague to report on Křetínský, without knowing if I’d have the chance to meet him, and on the last day of my trip, he finally agreed to meet with me. We spoke one-on-one and at the end of the interview, I said to myself, This is someone who is extremely intelligent, very ambitious, very determined, and very opportunistic—a real businessman. He will be someone to reckon with in the years to come.

 

From my point of view—if it was his intention to present himself as a well-intentioned investor, who wanted to support the French press—he made a big mistake.

 

You say it was hard to get access to Křetínský. Why do you think that was?

He prefers to act in the shadows. If you ask journalists in the Czech Republic, they’ll tell you that for at least five or six years, he hasn’t given any interviews, or hardly any. This week, he gave one to talk about the coronavirus, because he contracted it; I think that in the current crisis, everything’s been turned upside down, including his habit of discretion, maybe! But it’s very rare for him to give an interview. 

I also think that he was suspicious about my project, and my intentions, because he was very vexed by the way he was treated in France when he invested in the press. Everyone was asking whether he was under the thumb of Putin and the Kremlin; if he was a Russian agent. He took it very badly. He found it insulting. His business interests are in Western Europe. And he was 14 when the Communist regime collapsed in the Czech Republic. He knows what it is to be deprived of liberty, and he lived through the transition to democracy. So to be portrayed as a sort of lackey for Moscow really horrified him; he didn’t appreciate it at all. He’s even said several times that he thinks the reaction [to his investment] was a form of xenophobia. 

 

Do you think that’s justified?

I think xenophobia is a strong word for the reaction. I think it’s more a question of ignorance on the part of a section of the French press, and the French economic world, with regard to the Czech Republic. Lots of people think that because Prague was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, it’s still linked to Moscow. But Prague is much closer to Berlin, Brussels, and Paris than it is to Moscow. It’s not Eastern Europe—it’s not Belarus or Ukraine. It’s at the heart of Europe. I think its center of gravity is mostly oriented toward Western Europe. 

The Czech political and economic system does resemble an oligarchic system, like you see in Russia. But there are differences. I really dug into Křetínský’s supposed ties to Moscow, and for all sorts of reasons, I concluded that he isn’t linked to the Kremlin in any meaningful way.

 

Are these kinds of fears linked to the current geopolitical specter of Russia, or do they reflect something deeper in the French psyche?

I think both are true. Inevitably, the suspicion around Křetínský is a response to fears about Russian influence, and the destabilization of democracy. That said, there is something more structural in the culture of the French elite; there’s a sort of French arrogance that’s quite well known around the world. France has always had a hard time accepting the fact that foreign investors want to buy up our crown jewels. France sees no problem in going and buying businesses in Italy, in Spain, in Portugal, in England. But as soon as someone from outside the country touches one of our iconic businesses, that’s a problem. And Le Monde is an especially sensitive business. It carries real weight in French culture.

 

You seem to conclude in the book that Křetínský likely decided to invest in the French media to aid his efforts to buy into the country’s energy market. Is that right?

When you reconstruct the timeline of his investments in the media, you understand that there’s an intention there that goes beyond journalism and the desire to support the press. It could also be the case that he wants to support the press, but that doesn’t preclude his primary reason for investing in the media being to support his economic interests. In 2016, the French energy giant EDF needed money. (In the end, the French government provided it.) At that time, Křetínský went to see advisers to the French economy minister, and proposed to them that he become a minority stakeholder in EDF. They listened to him, but they didn’t take his proposal into consideration at all—they didn’t know who he was. Křetínský realized at that time that he didn’t have the networks he needed in France. So, in this context, during the 2017 French presidential campaign, he met with several of the campaigns. 

In the end, a young investment banker, Emmanuel Macron, unexpectedly became president. Macron had some explosive ideas, some very liberal ideas about energy; he thought the state had over-invested in the sector. Křetínský understood that everything was to play for in the energy market. And he decided to invest in newspapers. That allowed him, in very little time, to meet ministers, businessmen—everyone who counts in the French political and economic elite. And it’s true that now, everyone knows who he is; everyone wants to meet him. In two years, it’s incredible the network that he’s been able to build in France. He’s part of the landscape now. 

 

Křetínský has presented himself as a skeptic of big tech. There are lots of journalists who agree with him on that front. Why hasn’t that stance won him more friends in French media?

On big tech—or on the importance of strong and independent journalism to save democracy from populism—any journalist anywhere in the world would agree with what he says. The problem is the way he bought into the Le Monde Group. He did it in quite a brutal way—without meeting its journalists, without explaining his plans. And then there was a whole series of episodes involving other behind-the-scenes maneuvering, which cast suspicion on his true intentions. Le Monde’s journalists complained publicly that their independence was under threat. From my point of view—if it was his intention to present himself as a well-intentioned investor, who wanted to support the French press—he made a big mistake. 

 

He also owns media properties in the Czech Republic. What does his portfolio there teach us about his character and his attitudes toward the press? 

His media group in the Czech Republic has quite a good reputation; that is to say, their journalists can work freely. I met a journalist who has worked for Křetínský’s sports daily, Sport, who said he was allowed to write very freely about Sparta Prague, the big Czech soccer club that Křetínský also owns. His group also looks good by comparison to the press group owned by Andrej Babiš, the Czech prime minister, whose newspapers actively support [Babiš] politically. So Křetínský has quite a good reputation. But his properties don’t really play offense—against other oligarchs or politicians. It’s not hard-hitting investigative journalism that annoys people in power. It’s more of a tool of protection against other powerful people—don’t piss me off, or I can reply through my newspapers. That’s how Czech journalists perceive it. 

And there are some questions here. One site in his portfolio, Info.cz, merged, about a year ago, with a far-right blog, and completely changed its editorial line. It became a sort of local Breitbart. At the end of 2019, it was revealed that one of its leaders, who was also the head of a comms agency, was leading a vast propaganda and influence campaign in favor of the Chinese state, to “correct” China’s image in the Czech Republic, where it’s a big investor. It was sort of a strange mix of communication, journalism, politics, diplomacy. And this pro-China campaign was financed by a business belonging to Petr Kellner, who is the richest man in the Czech Republic [and has been a mentor to Křetínský].

 

You wanted to answer the question: is Křetínský an acceptable investor for French media? What did you conclude?

I have an opinion, personally. But I didn’t put it in the book because that’s not how I conceive of my work. I prefer to bring the facts together and leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions. 

What I would say in conclusion is that it seems that the media’s need for billionaires to keep them afloat is bigger than Křetínský. It seems an old-fashioned idea in the world we’re living in. Perhaps it was a good idea in the 2000s, and 2010s, but in the 2020s I think we have to invent something else. We see it all over in the world: readers no longer trust the media, in particular because they are owned by people with major economic interests. From there, journalists’ work becomes tainted with suspicion. It’s a very French view. Perhaps, in the US, you’ll find it far-fetched. But I think we have to find another system of ownership for the media, to guarantee their independence from big economic interests. If not, we’ll never win back public trust.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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