The ancien régime wants Messier on the guillotine

The troubles at media giant Vivendi
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The Independent Online

Locked inside a bank vault in a secret location in France is a sealed envelope. On the front is a strict instruction: it should only be opened in the event of Jean-Marie Messier, chairman and chief executive of Vivendi Universal, being killed.

Inside is the name of the one person Messier deems capable of succeeding him at the helm of France's biggest media company. Only two things are known about the chosen one: he or she is French and has no idea that his or her name is in the envelope.

This is a precaution taken by a man intending to stay on as chief for many years to come. But he may be a little presumptuous. The 45-year-old Frenchman will this week face the toughest challenge of his six-year reign at Vivendi. There's the sinking share price, the questions being asked over his strategy and the growing number of luminaries protesting over the departure of two senior executives.

Messier's first test will be at a board meeting on Tuesday. While he has been criticised for surrounding himself with friends in the boardroom, his executives have been exposed to criticism of their leader's gladiatorial approach to business. Action may have to be taken to deal with what is now being described in hushed tones as the "Messier problem".

If he survives Tuesday then he'll face another hard day at Wednesday's meeting of shareholders.

The self-styled Maître du Monde took charge of what was a water and sewerage business, Compagnie Générale des Eaux, in 1996. He then set about transforming it into a racy media conglomerate and renamed it Vivendi, repre- senting vivacity and mobility. Messier was one of a new breed of adrenaline-pumped deal makers. During his corporate adventures he bought Canal Plus, Pathé,, publisher Hough- ton Mifflin and the $10bn entertainment business of USA Networks. But the biggest deal was to merge with Seagram, the Canadian group that started off bootlegging spirits and ended up in entertainment. Messier ditched the booze and kept Universal, one of the world's leading music, film and TV businesses.

He says now that the spending spree is over, at least for a while; Vivendi needs time to weld its businesses together. But while Messier's deal-making credentials are not in dispute, some doubt if he has the skills to dirty his hands as an operations man. They believe that events last week are testimony to this.

In a surprise move, Messier sacked Pierre Lescure, the long-standing head of French TV station Canal Plus, and found himself the target of verbal attacks and violent protests outside his office. Last Wednesday's airing of Guignols, the satirical French equivalent of Spitting Image, on Canal Plus, seemed to catch the mood of the nation. Wearing the show's trademark "Superliar" costume was the Messier doll, tearfully declaring his undying love for Canal Plus. Faced with a mass of celebrity and political supporters of Lescure, the Messier figure phoned the only friend he had left: Silvio Berlusconi. "Bravo, J-M," said the right- wing Italian prime minister. "You're so like me. You just have to say 'I'm in charge' and 'Va fanculo a tutti'."

In the real world, Messier is finding it just as tough to seek out supporters. The sacking of Lescure has exposed a gulf between corporate France and the rest of the country. Despite more than a year of declining viewing figures, the French establishment is now rushing to defend the "iconic" status of Canal Plus, which drew much of its early popularity from providing pay-for-view football coverage and Saturday night pornography.

Lescure was seen as a defender of the French "cultural exception" against a tide of Americanisation. Messier, via his acquisition of Universal, had shown himself as a willing conduit for those influences.

As well as a star-studded show of strength – including the hijacking of a live TV broadcast by the country's acting community – the leading French presidential candidates have backed the Canal Plus cause. Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac both expressed their hope that it would not lose its Frenchness, but most outspoken was Jean-Pierre Chevènement. The vehement anti-euro candidate declared: "Messier has already said he wants to kill the French 'cultural exception'. Now he's going ahead and doing it."

But Messier is also embroiled in another critical conflict between French and US values, this time in a financial arena.

As the Vivendi-Universal merger took shape, he joined a small band of superstar French chief executives. Rubbing shoulders with France Telecom's Michel Bon and LVMH's Bernard Arnault, Messier exemplified where France saw its future: old French business attitudes were out, Anglo-Saxon values were in.

The most obvious sign of this shift was the aggressive deals. By turning themselves into globalised players, these companies would show the world that the French were just as capable of cost-slashing and therefore just as appealing to overseas investors.

Messier has assiduously courted the US. As well as getting Vivendi to spend $18m (£12m) on a New York apartment, he has worked his way into society. On the same day he dismissed Lescure, Hollywood stars received invitations from the Simon Wiesenthal holocaust centre to a $100,000-a-head award dinner. The centre has yet to detail why Messier will get a "Services to Humanity" prize.

Unfortunately, as Messier's troubles have also revealed, the Anglo-Saxon investment community retains much of its old cynicism about French business practices. There is a fear that the operations and stock performance of French companies are still in thrall to powerful interest groups. The emergence on the scene of Axa supremo Claude Bébear appeared to confirm these fears.

As one City analyst put it: "Since 1999, when he made his presence felt during the three-way bid battle between SocGen, BNP and Paribas, there has been an impression that nothing in France goes on without Monsieur Bébear's say-so."

Added to that mix now is the corporate raider Vincent Bolloré. His purchase of several large blocks of Vivendi shares has raised big questions. Will he pounce when Messier falls, or is he buying enough influence to help out an old mate?

The question he, and Vivendi's board, is likely to be pondering is: what is the "Messier discount"? Critics argue that if he wasn't at the tiller, Vivendi's share price would be considerably higher, perhaps by as much as 40 per cent.

That is a more pressing question than "Who is in Messier's envelope?"