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From penniless youth to billionaire – how Free boss Xavier Niel became one of France's most powerful men

January 15, 2013 | By Laurent Mauduit

He is one of the most powerful and influential men in France today. Not only is Xavier Niel the founder and main shareholder of the country's second biggest internet service provider, Free, the billionaire businessman is also part-owner of the nation's best-known newspaper Le Monde. Such is his power – and personality – that he is not afraid to take on Google, while he is friends with some of the most prominent families who make up France's wealthy business elite. Yet in the late 1980s Niel was a 'brilliant but penniless' youth with no formal qualifications working as a technician in the twilight world of sex chatlines and dating in central Paris. In an investigation Mediapart charts Niel's career from his lucrative ownership of sex shops in Paris and Strasbourg to the day he seized total control of the company that would ultimately make him France’s 12th wealthiest man. Laurent Mauduit and Dan Israel report.

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In recent weeks the name of Xavier Niel has once more made the headlines in France and around the world. The country’s second biggest internet service provider (ISP) Free, in which he has a controlling interest, sparked huge controversy when out of the blue it excluded adverts from its customers' online pages. Inevitably the battle was seen as one between Niel and the internet giant Google, who were widely and rightly regarded as the real target of the ban; Niel wants Google to pay his firm for the right of the search engine to be present on Free's network. Ultimately Free backed down under pressure from the government but not before a marker had been laid down that the company – and its boss – would not quietly sit by and allow the American search engine dictate to the market. In doing so Free revealed something of the characteristics of its founder; mystery and unpredictability.