Outlook: French farce at Decaux

IT WAS surely Roger Parry disguised as Jean-Claude Decaux who flew a party of journalists to Decaux's headquarters just outside Paris on Wednesday. Unfortunately, the pretence wasn't as effective as it should have been, for once there, the chief executive of More Group gave himself away by camping up his performance of the French outdoor advertising tycoon to an absurd degree.

Come off it Mr Parry, we're not that gullible you know. M. Decaux would never have said those things. You surely didn't expect us to fall for it did you? Certainly he looked the part, with all that gallic waving of the arms, but he gave himself away in what he said.

Mr Parry's bravura performance on the lawn outside Decaux's Plaisir headquarters needs some explaining. Decaux is one of France's leading outdoor advertising companies and it is bidding for its British rival More Group. Mr Parry, who heads More Group, doesn't much like the idea of being taken over by his arch French rival and he's trying to get the takeover referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, only he's not allowed to say that because he's already recommended a lower offer from Clear Channel of the US. Shareholders would get awfully angry if they thought their chief executive was trying to deprive them of a higher offer.

It was thus that a dastardly plan came to be hatched. Mr Parry would get the French to admit publicly that their bid was fundamentally anti- competitive and monopolistic in intention and the Office of Fair Trading would thus be persuaded to refer it. But nobody believed he would go this far. On his way to meet the journalists, M. Decaux was kidnapped and Mr Parry put in his place. Once properly disguised, Mr Parry set to work. It didn't matter if there was less competition in Europe as a result of this bid, he told incredulous hacks. The main thing is to keep the Americans out, because otherwise they'll make things very difficult in the market place for European companies like Decaux.

The real giveaway, however, came when he claimed that a monopoly could be positive for smaller cities and that the problem with politicians was that they were not far sighted enough to realise this. This was surely taking the joke too far. But there was worse. He then went on to say that Decaux could afford to pay so much for More Group because it was "answerable to no one". If that hasn't persuaded the Office of Fair Trading, which yesterday passed its advice on the matter to Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, nothing will. Unless a very narrow definition of what constitutes a competitive market is adopted by officials at the OFT, it still looks, on balance, as if Decaux will escape reference. Mr Parry ought to be congratulated, nonetheless, on a splendid last ditch attempt to change everyone's mind.

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