Czech energy billionaire raises questions with French media spree

Daniel Křetínský, photo: Filip Jandourek, ČRo

French media have described it like a bomb exploding, the news that a Czech billionaire is on the verge of taking over some of the country’s best known magazines. For them, the billionaire in question, Daniel Křetínský, is a total bolt from the blue.

Daniel Křetínský | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
Internationally, Daniel Křetínský is not an unknown entity. But his activities outside of the Czech Republic and Slovakia have mainly concerned his past core interests in the energy sector where he went on a veritable buying spree across the continent acquiring assets in Britain, Italy, Hungary, Germany, and Poland.

In many cases, Křetínský has stepped in where others fear to tread, such as the purchase of lignite coal mines and plants in former East Germany being offloaded by their Swedish owner Vattenfall or taking over a stake in Slovakia’s biggest electricity producer, Slovenské Elektrárne, as the completion of two nuclear reactors ran over budget and way beyond the original timetable.

Křetínský has built an energy empire amongst the biggest in Europe. And in recent years he has also been on the acquisition trail in the Czech media sector, picking up the country’s top selling tabloid, Blesk; the top sports paper; business paper E15; and news weekly Reflex. He is now seeking to buy a series of commercial radio stations, having around a third of the local market, from the French owner Lagardére.

And that deal appears to have morphed into wider acquisitions but this time in France itself with the French group ready to sell the iconic women’s magazine ‘Elle’ along with a series of other national titles including Télé 7 Jours, and France Dimanche.

And Křetínský’s Czech Media Invest is also seeking to buy the current affairs weekly, Marianne, which is currently subject to a court supervised rescue plan. The magazine has around 150,000 weekly sales but its Internet visits have more than quadrupled since 2015. Local French or Italian buyers had been expected for some of these titles, but French media suggest that Křetínský was ready to trump them with his offer.

Photo: CTK
With Czech Media Invest openly announcing that it wants to make France a main pillar of its business, many in the so-called hexagon are asking who the Czech businessman is and what he wants. Like in the Czech Republic, media ownership in France often goes hand in hand with advancing some other political or business interests.

But according to Adam Cerny, the chairman of the Czech Union of Journalists, Křetínský so far has not shown any such ambitions.

ʺHe belongs to those [media owners] who it must be said have not shown themselves to have a dramatic or scandalous reputation in political matters which is the case, for example, of Andrej Babiš or the Penta group, which bought up another group of publishers and papers with the owner openly declaring that he bought them with a political goal to protect his interests. Křetínský does not appear to have wanted to make these acquisitions with any hidden or open political interests.ʺ