France grapples with Czech mogul’s media moves

By Paul RICARD, Nathalie ALONSO, Corentin DAUTREPPE et le bureau de Prague

A billionaire from his energy firm, a major investor in football clubs, and now sloshing millions into French media, Daniel Kretinsky retains a stubbornly low profile internationally.

The Czech mogul has spent five years building up a complex web of interests in France, buying Elle magazine, making big investments in Le Monde and other media outlets, and even buying a castle outside of Paris.

This week, he is on the cusp of buying France’s second-largest publishing group Editis and taking control of debt-laden supermarket chain Casino.

Although his arrival on the media scene initially sparked ripples of alarm and concerns that he would try to influence editorial content, his low-key style has reassured his charges.

“All his promises to leave us alone have been kept,” Dov Alfon, editor-in-chief of Liberation, a newspaper bailed out by Kretinsky last year, told AFP.

“He doesn’t intervene at all, we do exactly what we want,” Caroline Fourest of Franc-Tireur magazine told AFP.

She has rarely met Kretinsky but she describes him as “polite and discreet”.

– ‘Very sincere’ –

The 47-year-old was born in the eastern Czech city of Brno and raised during the slow collapse of communism.

His story is not exactly a rags-to-riches tale, his stepfather is a prominent art photographer and his mother served on the country’s constitutional court between 2004 and 2014.

Kretinsky is well-known in his homeland as the boss of EPH, one of Central Europe’s biggest energy conglomerates.

He also owns Sparta Prague football club and bought a 27 percent stake in English club West Ham United in 2021.

But he apparently developed a love of France during a spell studying in the central city of Dijon.

Colleagues and collaborators portray him as an extremely intelligent businessman who “speaks remarkable French”, but his public utterances are rare.

When he pumped money into Liberation, a statement quoted him as saying its continued existence was “essential to democratic debate”.

Jean-Michel Mazalerat, head of GazelEnergie, a firm owned indirectly by Kretinsky, reckons growing up under communism could explain his media investments.

“When he says he is investing in freedom of the press, I believe he is very sincere,” said Mazalerat.

But where an air of mystery remains, there will always be speculation.

“Perhaps we don’t know all the details,” said a source who regularly deals with Kretinsky.

“Sometimes, going in a straight line isn’t the best way to get where you’re going.” — Agence France-Presse

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