Investigation ordered after Michelin tyre boss drowns

Mystery as tycoon dies when fishing boat capsizes in 'fair weather'

M. Michelin, 43, died when a small fishing vessel, captained by an experienced local fisherman, sank in fair weather off a treacherous part of the west Breton coast.

Neither the fishing boat nor its owner, Guillaume Normant, had been found last night, 30 hours after the accident. The body of M. Michelin, who led the company that controls 20 per cent of the world tyre market, was recovered from the sea on Friday night.

Tributes poured in yesterday for the young Michelin boss from the worlds of politics, business and Formula One car racing. The fifth child of the secretive François Michelin, Édouard had been groomed to lead the Clermont Ferrand-based company. A married man with four children, he took over Michelin in 1999 and caused immediate uproar by cutting the labour force at a time when profits were at record levels.

In recent years, he has reinforced Michelin's position as the world's leading tyre-maker and brought the company successfully back into motor racing after an eight-year absence.

President Jacques Chirac expressed "great sadness" and "consternation" at the loss of a man who has "modernised his company while making it an internationally renowned French champion". The French economy "is in mourning", he said.

M. Michelin was staying at the family's second home at Fouesnant on the west Breton coast for the long weekend. The news of his death was broken to his wife by the village mayor, Roger Le Goff. An autopsy confirmed that he died by drowning.

M. Michelin had persuaded the president of the local fishermen, Guillaume Normant, to take him line-fishing for sea bass in his 24ft boat, the Liberté. Weather conditions were said to be reasonable but not perfect with low visibility and a heavy swell from recent high winds. Robert Bouguéon, the president of fishermen in a neighbouring port, Guilvinec, said that M. Normant had ben reluctant to take M. Michelin out but had allowed himself to be persuaded.

"It was his good heart that killed him. He couldn't say no," M. Bouguéon said.

The cause of the accident remained a mystery last night. Although the area, off the island of Sein, is one of the most treacherous parts of a hazardous coast, M. Normant knew it well.

The public prosecutor, Anne Kayanakis, said she had ordered the judicial investigation to rule out any criminal negligence.

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