Brave mogul who lost the plot

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

It took just six months for high-flying Vivendi Universal chief Jean Marie Messier, once nicknamed the Master of the World, to fall to earth with a bang. We plot the charismatic rise and humiliating fall of "J2M".

The 45-year-old golden boy of French business, whose bold style in building up the Vivendi Universal empire broke the mould of France's business elite and earned him the reputation as a messiah of new French capitalism, fell on the rocks of a plunging shareprice and an establishment which looked at his flamboyance with a sceptical eye.

At the height of his popularity, when every month a new deal was made for the construction of the Vivendi Universal empire, jokes about Messier going to heaven and telling Saint Peter he had bought the place did the rounds in Paris financial circles.

After initially earning an admirative Americanised French nickname of "J2M", (shorthand for Jean-Marie Messier) he soon earned the less well-intentioned dubbing as J6M, shorthand for Jean-Marie Messier, Moi Meme Maitre du Monde (Jean-Marie Messier, myself Master of the World).

When he decided to spend more time in the United States, when the company bought a EUR 20-million apartment in New York for his use, it was national news.

But even then there were mutterings in France about his style being too flamboyant for a country where upper echelons of state and business have traditionally had a close, but descrete relationship.

The new Finance Minister, Francis Mer, who moved into the job directly from being co-chairman of the steel giant Arcelor is an example of the cosy relationship which Messier seemed to be happy to ignore.

Messier's salary of EUR 5.12 million last year, published to meet US company law requirements, also raised eyebrows in a country - France - where salary details are normally only revealed to one's nearest and dearest, and often not even to them.

A graduate of the elite National School of Administration, which provides the backbone of the political establishment, Messier, who comes from a humble background, seemed to delight in brash statements and acts.

When he was awarded a top French honour, the Legion of Honour, at a star-studded gala in Paris last year, VIP's were stunned when he had a recording of Canadian country-pop singer Shania Twain's song "We made it," blare from the speakers.

But it was his declaration last December that "the French cultural exception is dead," a reference to a French system of aiding art and culture with large subsidies, which provoked a violent reaction here.

Many date his loss of support among the establishment from the moment of making that comment, which provoked a furious debate in France.

The fact that Messier was percieved as being close to former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, defeated by the centre right President Jacques Chirac, did not help matters when the chips were down.

Using charisma to promote a huge gamble in transforming, over six years, the 149-year-old former utilites group Compagnie Generale des Eaux into a media and telecommunications giant, his personality became seen as a hinderance.

And when push came to shove, the establishment closed ranks. French board members united against him with Chirac himself stepping into fray to ensure that foreign hands, in the form of US shareholders, did not get a hold of Vivendi.

1 July 2002


0 Comments To This Article