Flamboyant French tycoon plots triumphant return

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French tycoon Bernard Tapie plans to return to the business world after years of legal battles over tax bills.

PARIS – Flamboyant French tycoon, actor and politician Bernard Tapie, former owner of Adidas and the Marseille football club, is planning a triumphant return to business after years of legal wrangling over tax bills.

The 66-year-old celebrity wheeler-dealer, once a controversial symbol of the Riviera style in politics and business, told AFP he was looking at a dozen or so firms, including tour operator Club Med, with an eye to buying them out.

"Beyond the funds that I have at my disposal, it's my hunger and freedom to restore my operations that makes my return possible," he said, promising to set up a fund to invest in and turn around struggling firms.

The markets are taking his boasts seriously -- Club Med shares surged 6.19 percent when he announced his interest -- and the man known to all in France by the familiar "Nanard" appears on the verge of an unlikely comeback.

As recently as last year, he appeared washed up. Years of complex business deals had left him in debt and in trouble with the authorities.

Then, in July, he won a longstanding legal battle with the state over a disputed tax bill and was awarded a EUR 285 million compensation package for the damage done to his interests.

In one fell swoop his slate was cleared.

It is not clear just how much of Tapie's windfall is left; now he has settled his creditors. The man himself says "between EUR 20 and 40 million" but at least one well-placed observer thinks he has more than 100 million.

But however much he ends up splashing out, he has made it clear that he wants to be a player again. In November 2008 he announced plans to set up a holding firm to oversee investments in several firms, just as he did in the 1980s.

Back then he became a national celebrity and populist left-wing politician on the back of his swashbuckling business adventures, before becoming ensnared in legal red tape and eventually facing ruin and, briefly, prison.

The so-called "Zorro of Business" scored his most famous coup in 1990, when he bought out the German sporting goods giant Adidas and built it into a world competitor.

It became the keystone of his empire, and underwrote a luxurious lifestyle split between his palatial Paris townhouse and Pharanoiac yacht, The Phocea.

His football club and pride and joy, Olympique de Marseille, won the Champions League in 1993, but his luck ran out when he was implicated in a domestic match fixing scandal and spent six months in jail.

Released in 1997, he changed tack and attempted to become a cultural impresario and performer, appearing as himself and as an actor in ad campaigns, radio shows and television and film roles.

He enjoyed a parallel career in progressive politics both as a protege of former Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, who made him minister for cities in 1992, and as leader of his own small radical party.

Today he has switched his affections to the right and, although he says he no longer wants to be a politician, says he admires President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"If I didn't think it would annoy him, I'd say he's the politician with whom I most identify," he said.

In the meantime his goals are many.

Tapie recently told the weekly Le Point he hopes to open a US-style performing arts college for actors and dancers, to create a business college and to set up a consumer advice website.

And, despite his earlier brush with the law, Tapie is not quite done with football. While his beloved Marseille is beyond his reach for now, he has expressed interest in its smaller local rivals Nice and Cannes.

AFP / Expatica

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