Journalist at French media Libération, Jérôme Lefilliâtre investigated the Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky, who made a highly-mediatized entry in France in 2018 by becoming a shareholder of the newspaper Le Monde.
Who is he? How did he make his fortune? And what are his ambitions in France and in Europe? All the results of his investigation have been published in France: “Mister K. Petites et grandes affaires de Daniel Kretinsky” (Mister K. Small and big dealings of Daniel Kretinsky).
Who exactly is Daniel Kretinsky?
Daniel Kretinsky is an almost 45-year-old Czech billionaire. He holds the third largest fortune in his country, according to the U.S. magazine Forbes. His main asset is the energy conglomerate EPH, which operates in a dozen European countries and in several activities (gas, coal, nuclear power plants, networks, services…).
In the Czech Republic, EPH owns a media group, including the popular daily newspaper Blesk. Křetínský has numerous interests in the media sector: in France, he bought the magazine Marianne and the weekly Elle in particular, and invested in Le Monde. In recent years, he also entered the distribution sector, taking positions in the Metro, Casino and Foot Locker groups. He’s increasingly active.
How did he make his fortune in Central Europe? And what do we mean by second generation Czech oligarchs?
Daniel Křetínský became a millionaire quite young, as a corporate lawyer for the Slovak financial group J&T. But what enabled him to reach the stage of great wealth was the launch of the energy company EPH, which he first managed before becoming its owner. He made this company one of the largest electricity producers in Europe.
A key deal for him was the acquisition in 2013 of the Eustream gas pipeline in Slovakia, which transports Russian gas to Western Europe. This was a very good financial coup, bringing in several hundred million of euros a year and giving him the means to further invest and grow.
It must also be said that several companies and firms were bought and acquired in sometimes troubled conditions. In his immediate entourage, there are men and women who don’t really have the reputation of being saints: Petr Kellner, Martin Roman, Patrik Tkáč, Jana Nečasová… Good fairies have looked into Daniel Křetínský’s cradle. His journey is punctuated by scandals and dubious business deals, which have regularly erupted near him without incriminating him completely or personally.
The term “second-generation Czech oligarchs” refers to influential Czech businessmen, who are very active in the economy, the media and/or politics, and who do not come from the generation that made their fortune at the time of the privatizations of the 1990s, but later, from the 2000’s onwards. Daniel Křetínský is one of them.
What’s the reputation of Daniel Kretinsky in the Czech Republic?
That of a discreet and mysterious man, who shows himself little, speaks little, but goes very fast. In the Czech Republic, he is best known as the owner and president of Sparta Prague, the most popular football club in the country.
Where does Daniel Křetínský’s interest in France come from? You describe him as a man who didn’t just come to France to do business, but who also loves French culture and speaks the language fluently.
He obviously has an economic interest in France, a large European market where he wants to be active after having invested in Germany, the U.K. and Italy. But there’s also a sentimental interest in France, bequeathed in part by his parents. As a teenager, Daniel Křetínský spent several summers in France – his first discoveries of the non-communist world. As a student, he spent a semester at the University of Law in Dijon, on exchange. He drew an attachment to France from these experiences.
What about his resounding entry into the world of French media?
It happened very quickly. In the space of a week in the spring of 2018, Daniel Kretinsky announced that he got his hands on several Lagardère group magazines, including Elle, and then Marianne. This was very surprising for the French public, because nobody knew him at the time, apart from the energy technicians. It gave off the feeling of a prepared raid… Some articles published at the time explored who he was, but the investigations were not very thorough.
Everything changed when we learned, in October 2018, that Daniel Křetínský bought back part of the shares held by Matthieu Pigasse in the powerful group Le Monde. A deal negotiated secretly for several months. Le Monde brought things to a whole new level, it’s a huge asset and politically very sensitive. Many investigations were carried out and, once again, numerous articles were devoted to him.
The recurring tone in these articles, not constant, but recurring, was to wonder, to sum up in a nutshell, who was this little Czech boy who dared to attack such a jewel of French media and journalism. As an oligarch of non-Western Europe, his links with Putin’s Russia were also immediately questioned and investigated. Daniel Křetínský perceived this as a form of xenophobia. For my part, I see it as an expression of a kind of French arrogance, but also of ignorance towards the Czech Republic and Central Europe.
You mention a conversation between Natacha Polony, Marianne editor-in-chief, and Daniel Křetínský: “We found ourselves on one point: criticising the EU doesn’t mean being anti-European”. Does the Czech billionaire have a political vision? What is his view of the EU?
Politically, he is close to the Czech liberal-conservative ODS party and to Mirek Topolánek, the former Prime Minister from this party. Daniel Křetínský is a right-wing man, economically liberal, with very little focus on environmental issues, but probably less conservative than older personalities of this political side. On the other hand, he does not belong to the Eurosceptic, very “pro-Putin” wing common in the ODS, still embodied by former President Václav Klaus for instance.
Daniel Křetínský is rather pro-EU, very much oriented towards the free and common market. This does not prevent him from having reservations regarding the bloc’s functioning. He’s very critical of the freedom Europe leaves to large U.S. technology companies, for example. This is one of his great struggles, fuelled by his experience in the media sector.
Is there a real will to fight against European populism by supporting the press? Or is this simply a false philanthropic pretense that hides other ambitions?
A complicated question! Among the great businessmen of his kind, it seems to me that personal economic and financial interests take precedence over everything else. For me, Daniel Kretinsky is no exception to this rule. This does not mean that he is not sincere, however, when he says he wants to fight against the rise of populism in Europe by defending the freedom of the press. From Prague, he’s well placed to see what’s happening in Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Poland and even the Czech Republic around Andrej Babiš. Moreover, he’s a teenager of the Velvet Revolution. He experienced the communist dictatorship and its fall. In a man’s life, I can only imagine that counts…
Nevertheless, there’s talk, and there’s action. The way Daniel Křetínský made his fortune raises questions of collusion between the political class and the economic elites. His Czech newspapers are not always a source of great journalism. His declared intentions and his real interests may conflict, and when they do, the latter, I think, prevail.
What are the relations between Daniel Křetínský and Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
I’ve investigated a lot his connection to Putin’s Russia, but I haven’t found any collusion with the master of the Kremlin. I give the details in the book. As far as I’m concerned, Daniel Křetínský is doing very good business with Gazprom, but that doesn’t make him Putin’s valet.
What are the future prospects for Daniel Kretinsky in France, and more broadly in Europe?
At the end of my book, I say that he is preparing some big deals in Europe. He is on the lookout, wants to take advantage of the current economic crisis to advance his pawns. In France, I think he’s hoping for openings in the energy sector, with EDF and Engie. I think that’s the purpose of his spectacular arrival in the French media. These last weeks, he also made his first investments in the United States, in Macy’s and Foot Locker stores in particular. This is a major novelty. He turns to a very big market.
This interview was conducted by Arthur Kenigsberg and originally published in French by Euro Créative, an official Kafkadesk partner.