From civil servant to jet-setting tycoon – to convicted embezzler

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The Independent Online

Jean-Marie Messier, the French tycoon and self-styled business "visionary", was convicted of embezzlement and duping investors by a French court yesterday and given a three-year suspended jail sentence.

The court also convicted the Canadian businessman, Edgar Bronfman Jr, the chairman of Warner Music, of misleading markets and insider dealing before the abrupt collapse of Messier's Vivendi Universal (VU) media empire in 2002. Both were ordered to pay immense fines: €150,000 (£127,500) for Messier and €5m for Bronfman. Both said they would appeal.

The convictions – in a delayed judgment after a three-week trial in Paris last June – overruled the French state prosecutor who had joined the defence in arguing that there was insufficient evidence against either man.

The trial went ahead only at the insistence of the examining magistrate, who had investigated the rocketing rise, and equally dramatic collapse, of VU between 1996 and 2002.

Messier, 54, a senior civil servant turned jet-setting tycoon, told the judges that Vivendi, originally a state-owned water company, was working on epoch-making projects, including "a BlackBerry ahead of BlackBerry", when debts of up to €35bn forced his resignation in July 2002.

Although he admitted "errors", he said that Vivendi had been hit by a "perfect storm" of events including the 9/11 attacks in New York, the Enron scandal and warfare between French and American shareholders. The strategy had been correct, Messier said, but failed because it was "ahead of the technological possibilities" of its time.

The court found Messier guilty of "abuse of company funds", or embezzlement, for having organised a €20.5m "golden parachute". After a storm of indignation in the French media, and amongst small shareholders, he didn't take the payment.

He was also found guilty of "issuing false or misleading" information in two statements on VU's financial position. A third charge of manipulating the company's share price was dismissed.

Bronfman merged the American media company Universal with Vivendi – formerly Générale des Eaux – in 2001. He was found guilty of insider-trading, "conveying false or misleading information" about Vivendi in 2000-02 and "manipulating stock prices" in 2001.

He was given a 15-month suspended jail sentence as well as the fine. Two other former VU executives, Eric Licoys and Guillaume Hannezo, were given suspended prison sentences. Three were acquitted.

Messier began as a high-flying civil servant, graduate of the elite civil service college, Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA). From 1996 to 2002, he transformed Vivendi from a water company into one of the world's largest hi- tech and media empires through a mixture of market opportunism and excellent government contacts.

Eventually, Vivendi's shares plunged by more than 80 per cent as the company ran up the estimated €35bn in debt to buy, among other things, the Universal film studios and music label, the French cable TV station Canal Plus and SFR, France's second-largest mobile telephone operator. But Messier was mocked by the satirical TV puppet show, Les Guignols de l'Info, – broadcast by his own station Canal Plus – as "Jean-Marie-Messier-Myself-Master of the World".

Small shareholders who lost money in VU believe Messier was given favourable treatment because of his past links with politicians close to President Nicolas Sarkozy.