Un homme d'affaires: Bernard Tapie

Louise Baring
Sunday 02 August 1992 00:02

He was a poor boy from the wretched slums of northern Paris - or so he says. Much of Bernard Tapie's early life is intentionally obscured. But ever since he won a talent competition in a nightclub almost 30 years ago, his career has been caught in the spotlight. Then, when he was invited to join the government as a minister earlier this year, the lights became too bright for comfort

'I HAVE confidence in him; I believe him to be honest; he is a winner.' Thus the French prime minister Pierre Beregovoy, on television last April, as he dished up an exotic Minister for Urban Affairs in an otherwise predictable new government pledged to root out scandal and corruption. The delicacy was none other than Bernard Tapie, the flashy, multi-millionaire boss of the Olympique Marseille football club. It was a dicey choice: despite his many admirable qualities, Tapie's integrity was already in question.

The shrewd Beregovoy was, of course, well aware that Olympique Marseille, France's champion club, is under investigation for tax evasion and fraud, and that the French stock- exchange regulatory body is dubious about the accounting standards of Tapie's holding company. But the governing Socialists had just scored a pathetic 18 per cent in the regional elections. The left was in desperate need of new energy and glamour. Not that the average Frenchman's taste runs to silk suits, gold-painted Falcon jets or chandelier-filled private yachts. But the publicity-mad enfant terrible from the grey suburbs of north Paris, who introduced enterprise culture to a hierarchical, hidebound society, had captured France's imagination. Some mistrusted Tapie's style, but, as opinion polls had earlier revealed, half the country said they would vote for him as president. Even more important: he had President Francois Mitterrand's blessing.

As for any questions about Tapie's business dealings, Pierre Beregovoy reckoned that this was a cupboard capable of staying shut. So did Tapie, judging from a photograph of the well- fed tycoon exuberantly demonstrating his

skills with a skipping rope on a visit to a school near Arles just before his appointment was announced.

But less than two months later, a skeleton popped out from an unexpected corner. On the morning of 27 May, Tapie was summoned to the sombre galerie financiere on the second floor of the imposing Palais de Justice on the Ile de la Cite. There, the elegant Edith Boisette - a ferociously intelligent examining magistrate, nicknamed 'La belle Edith' - invited the minister to take a seat while she gave him some alarming news. He was being charged with corruption.

Tapie's accuser was his former business partner, Georges Tranchant, who had gone to the authorities with a tale of alleged chicanery concering the fate of their joint company, Nippon Audio Video Systems, importers and distributors of Toshiba products in France. In 1985, according to Tranchant, Tapie had sold the company to Toshiba for 1.8m French francs ( pounds 180,000). Several years had passed when, to his fury, Tranchant discovered that his erstwhile friend had quietly pocketed a further Fr13m ( pounds 1.3m) from the purchasers - half of which Tranchant felt was rightly his.

Tranchant, who is a neo-Gaullist deputy and thus also Tapie's political enemy, had picked just the right moment to wreak his revenge. Two days after the summons to the Palais de Justice, the prime minister's headquarters at the Palais Matignon announced that the minister for urban affairs had asked to be relieved of his duties.

'I feel as though my leg has been seized and torn apart by wolves, so I'm going to slice it off and hand it to them,' a tearful Tapie said in a telephone call to Benoit Bartherotte, his friend and part-time campaign manager, on the night of his resignation.

'You should have seen this one coming,' Bartherotte replied. 'There's no point in blubbing.' But for Tapie, usually a man of inviolate self-confidence, whose rise to power seemed inexorable, it was the bitterest blow.

The suburb of Le Bourget lies to the north of Paris, out towards Charles de Gaulle airport, beyond the Peripherique. Fashionable Parisians - who show scant interest in the large chunks of their city beyond the double-digit arrondissements - have only a sketchy idea of what it's like, though they can get there easily enough on the suburban railway. Its dusty, tree-lined streets now harbour tense, bored North Africans and other young people with little to look forward to except unemployment. But 40 years ago, Le Bourget was a respectable, village-like suburb - the sort of place where Tati's Monsieur Hulot might have lived.

There, in January 1943, 19-year-old Raymonde Tapie gave birth to her first child, Bernard. It was three months before her husband, press-ganged by the occupying Germans into the STO (service du travail obligatoire) far from Paris, saw his son for the first time. After the war, Jean Tapie worked as a finisher in a refrigerator factory in the neighbouring suburb of La Courneuve - a job he kept until he retired in the Seventies. Mme Tapie, meanwhile, did the cooking and cleaning in their cramped three-room flat, also making sure Bernard and his younger brother, Jean- Claude, did their homework. Each August, the family set off in their Renault - a rare luxury in those days - for a two-week camping holiday across France.

'My children, who've sailed on my yacht to the most beautiful places in the world, never had holidays as happy as mine,' Tapie says. Despite these fond memories, the financier prefers to claim he grew up in La Courneuve, a wretched slum filled with corrugated-iron shacks and crumbling apartment blocks - rather than neat, lower middle-class Le Bourget just up the road. Born with a passion for story-telling that borders on mythomania, 'L'enfant de La Courneuve', as Paris Match calls Tapie, eludes his numerous biographers.

'He's convincing because his stories always contain a grain of truth - just enough to make them plausible. I think he also comes to believe them himself', says Christoph Bouchet, a 29- year-old journalist at Agence France Presse and the author of L'Aventure Tapie. He became intrigued when he worked for AFP in Marseilles because so many of Tapie's tales contradict each other - starting with his date of birth, which he is wont to place circa 1946, several years after the event took place.

It thus comes as no surprise that Tapie's academic achievements are also not quite as he would have us believe, even though he has

always called himself a self-made man. After an undistinguished spell at the local lycee, he says he qualified an engineer - a far more prestigious achievement in France than in

Britain. But Christoph Bouchet's research reveals that he went only to a technical college offering preparatory courses in engineering.

One fact is known for certain about Tapie's school years: he was both an enthusiastic and a gifted footballer and gymnast. The young boy also settled any playground scuffles with a physical courage that would serve him well when confronted by militant members of Jean- Marie Le Pen's National Front Party decades later. This quality, combined with enormous energy and charm, meant that he already wielded a certain power.

But his ambition first led him in a curious direction: one summer after completing his military service, the 21-year-old Tapie won a singing competition in a nightclub at Saint- Jean-de-Monts on the Atlantic coast. This gave him the idea of becoming a pop star, and he set himself up as a sort of cross between Sacha Distel and Johnny Hallyday, first under the name of Bernard Pascal, then Bernard Tapy, following the fashion of the day for stars with names ending in a Y - like Francoise Hardy, Annie Cordy and, of course, Johnny Hallyday.

Bernard Tapy's parents were not convinced, but in the spring of 1965 their determined son was signed up by RCA. The record company promptly launched their new star with a song that had been a hit in the United States called 'The Ballad of the Green Berets', in a new French version, with words by Gilbert Becaud's lyric-writer. Allegedly having written much of the publicity blurb himself, Bernard Tapy is described in the sleeve notes as a 'A sporty, good-looking enfant du peuple with a smile that has all the cheeky charm of a kid from the back streets of Paris.' The photograph shows him perched on a stool, cabaret-style, complete with cravat and gold bracelet.

TWENTY YEARS later, the press would be calling Bernard Tapie the man Frenchwomen would most like to spend the weekend with. Nowadays, approaching 50, Tapie's face looks a little like a satyr's. Fearful of gaining weight, he goes on constant diets and cures esthetiques, any signs of ill-health or middle age sending him into a panic. One morning in the autumn of 1986, Jacques Seguela, an advertising man who steers the Socialist campaigns, was surprised to find his friend with a bandaged head. It was just before start of Ambitions, Tapie's new television show. 'Just a little sinus operation,' he explained. But a few days later a smiling Tapie emerged from his turban, thrilled with the results of his 'lifting'.

For all his vanity, Tapie is said to be a devoted husband - apart from one or two irregularities. In 1970, he left his first wife, Michele, when their second child, Stephane, was just a few months old. And it wasn't until 18 years after he first introduced his former secretary, Dominique, as his wife, that he finally married her. He now lives with her and their two children in a flashy maison particuliere full of gold Louis XV furniture on the Avenue Foch, a smart, soulless street in the 16th arrondissement favoured by rich families from the Gulf states and Latin America. A constant traveller, Tapie nevertheless prefers to fly back late at night in his private jet from Moscow or Rome rather than spend a night away from home.

It was Dominique who, in 1976, first persuaded her boyfriend to go into business. Following his brief stint as a pop singer, Tapie travelled to America. He was captivated by the brisk, can-do energy of a new country that made Paris seem little more than a beautiful museum. Absorbing the new managerial and business philosophies of the time, he returned to France a couple of years later as a business consultant, also teaching part-time at the Institut Superieur des Affaires. His first business venture was to buy for one franc the debts of a printing company that had been occupied by the workers. He offered the bank a repayment schedule and the workers part-ownership, and then successfully brought the publishers down. His printing empire grew fast.

Thereafter Tapie barely paused from coup to coup, acquiring an astonishing 40 companies between 1977 and 1989 - the best known of which was Wonder Batteries, bought in 1984, and sold four years later at a pounds 48.5m profit. In the summer of 1990, the entrepreneur pulled off the biggest coup of his business career: Bernard Tapie Finances, his holding company, acquired an 80 per cent stake in the market- dominating German sportswear manufacturer, Adidas. He also asked the formidable 60-year- old Gilberte Beaux, Sir James Goldsmith's financial adviser, to represent BTF on the company's supervisory board.

'Bernard has two extraordinary qualities,' says Mme Beaux, who favours old-fashioned, snap-top handbags and wears her grey hair in a netted bun. 'First, he has an almost instinctive grasp of whatever is at stake. Second, he's incredibly direct with people - he tells them exactly what he wants.' An unusual trait in France, where business meetings are usually conducted more like an elaborate ritual.

Of course successful, dynamic entrepreneurs are a common breed in Europe and the United States. But as the era of Reagan and Thatcher unfolded elsewhere, Tapie was the only man in France preaching the creed of free enterprise, and how to make it work in a culture controlled by class barriers and red tape. He was thus a rare animal. And that, in part, explains his rise to public prominence.

By 1985, Tapie began to court the spotlight in earnest. After hosting his own weekly television show, he wrote an unabashed autobiography, Gagner. 'You can make it, too - let's make it together]' was his message. And with his Porsches and his private jet, complete with corporate logos, he became the living embodiment of the profit motive.

But smart Paris bankers and civil servants saw Tapie as an impertinent outsider whose impatience with the old patterns of power offended the French establishment, for whom the ladder to the top has always been through the academic, ruthlessly competitive grandes ecoles. Here was this petit gamin from a working-class suburb who dared flash his money and success before a stiff haute bourgeoisie world. The rest of France loved him for it.

BUYING THE debt-ridden Olympique Marseille in 1987 seemed a natural enough pet project for a flamboyant tycoon who had been football-crazy as a boy. But Tapie also had something more important in mind: politics. Marseilles, with its gangster history - particularly in the heroin trade - had recently suffered from high unemployment and a prickly relationship with Maghrebin immigrants from Algeria and Morocco. Its citizens' self-esteem mirrored the performance of their football team.

'I'm not selling you a team, I'm not selling you a stadium - I'm selling you a public,' Gaston Deferre, the late mayor of Marseilles, told him. So, with vote-catching in mind, Tapie set about turning his team into the most glamorous and successful in France. Matches at 'L'OM' became family events with music, fireworks and lasers. He tried, and failed, to buy Diego Maradona from Naples, but he did acquire the Tottenham Hotspur player, Chris Waddle, for pounds 4.25m - and above all, the dashing, high-scoring Jean-Pierre Papin, France's answer to Gary Lineker.

For all his intellectual austerity, Francois Mitterrand has a weakness for flashy, engaging outsiders - all the more so if they can be of use to him. In 1988, Jacques Seguela arranged a dinner between Mitterrand and Tapie, to solicit his public support for the president's bid for re-election. As Tapie later recalled: 'The left said to me, 'You know things we don't. We're in a real crisis. We need to make, build, sell. We need people who can make things happen: in the schools, the housing estates, the supermarkets.' Mitterrand asked, 'Will you help?' I said, 'Yes.' '

Curiously, Tapie dragged his feet at first. But legislative elections were called in the wake of Mitterrand's re-election, and the bruising leader of the far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, announced his candidature for a seat in the Marseilles area. Tapie considered Le Pen a 'political danger' and, relishing the challenge, stood in a neighbouring constituency as a candidate for the left.

'I have come here because I have the solution to your problems - deport the immigrants and the streets will be safe and jobs plentiful,' boasted Le Pen, who was used to demolishing other politicians' civilised arguments with astonishing ease. But Tapie shared the same brutal, bar-room debating skills: Le Pen limped away from a by-election television debate with the air of a punctured football.

The leader of the far right was beaten in the election, but so - narrowly - was Tapie. Three hundred votes had somehow 'vanished', Marseilles-style, between the first and final count. In January 1989, however, a re-run finally gave Tapie his seat in the assembly as a Socialist deputy in the region of Bouches-du- Rhone. His rival received much the same treatment in the run-up to this year's regional elections: 'It's no accident that Le Pen has chosen to stand here in Marseilles,' Tapie told the crowds. 'By doing so he shows that this region is the most racist in France. Anyone who votes for Le Pen is un salaud. Anyone who can call the Holocaust 'a detail of history' is un salaud . . . Le Pen calls weak members of our society 'handicappped'. And we know what the Nazis did to their handicapped.'

'Tapie] Tapie] Vive Bernard Tapie]', his audience would respond. Not that the French are overly fond of Arabs or Jews - but the upstart millionaire was taking on the bully boy. Of course, Tapie has always had forceful critics, who dismiss him as a vulgar political opportunist. Last March, he talked of his plan to retrain the unemployed rather than send them back to Algeria or West Africa. 'Is this to fill his own pockets?' snapped Le Parisien. His support of Arabs and Jews also evokes the deep guilt over the two largest stains on recent French history: widespread collaboration with the Nazis, and the Algerian war.

None the less, Tapie gained a personal vote of 26 per cent in those elections - one of the best results for the otherwise humiliated Socialists - thus prompting Mitterrand to push his protege for a ministerial post. What could be more fitting than to put the boy from Le Bourget (or La Courneuve, as he would prefer) in charge of urban affairs? Tapie now felt himself well set on the road to the presidency.

'My grandmother couldn't believe it when she heard I'd been appointed', he told a television interviewer, 'She telephoned me the next day and asked me, 'Are you the Tapie who has become minister?'. ' His wife's reaction, he hastened to add, was rather more respectful: 'She wept tears of emotion and joy.'

A few weeks later, of course, it ended in tears of a different kind. 'I'd never seen him so sad,' said Jean-Louis Levreau, vice-president of Olympique Marseille, who visited Tapie the day after his resignation. 'He simply couldn't understand the wave of criticism and attacks.'

Soon it was reversals on all fronts: at a stormy meeting, the shareholders of Bernard Tapie Finances wanted to know why the company's profits had dwindled from Fr47.9m (almost pounds 5m) in 1990 to a net loss of Fr294.9m ( pounds 30.7m) the following year. Meanwhile, the Adidas operation was clouded with rumours of bids, counter-bids, redundancies and resignations, while Tapie decided whether he could hold on to it. Then, on 8 July, Pentland, a British leisure investment group, announced it would buy Tapie's stake for pounds 215m in cash.

'I'm off sailing on my yacht', said a shirty Tapie over the telephone, declining my request for an interview.

SEVENTY kilometres south of Bordeaux lies Cap Ferret, the sandy tip of a slender peninsula covered with pine trees. There, in a compound of renovated blue-painted wooden fishermen's cottages, lives the boyish 46-year-old Benoit Bartherotte, whom Tapie telephoned in such despair after he was forced to resign. A curious friend - given that Bartherotte comes from an austere, vieille France Gascon family and doesn't have much money. The pair met in the early Eighties when both men owned a couple of minor couture houses in Paris.

Bartherotte fell under his spell. The tycoon soon started asking his new friend back to his fortress-like home on the Avenue Foch where, Bartherotte confides, white-gloved servants serve Tapie's guests rather revolting food.

Zsa-Zsa Bartherotte, Benoit's wife, does not share her husband's affection for Tapie. It annoys her that Tapie turns to Benoit only for political advice or solace in troubled times. Nor has the millionaire ever offered to pay her husband for his counsel. Bartherotte, however, remains loyal to his friend, whom he stills sees as a future president of France: 'Tapie didn't want to resign, he just cracked up. But now he's his old self once more and will fight back.' Bartherotte also explains that Tapie pocketed the extra Fr13m ( pounds 1.35m) in the Toshiba affair because he himself paid Nippon Video Audio System's extensive debts as well as lending the company his prestigious name. He merely unwisely neglected to inform his partner.

But the ex-minister is also tainted with the more serious allegations of fraud and tax evasion at Olympique Marseille. Though charges of corruption tend to thread their way through French politics (two other politicians, Henri Emmanuelli, the President of the National Assembly, and the popular Francois Leotard - an ex-novice monk - from the conservative Union Democratique Francaise now also face various fraud and corruption charges), his path to the presidency will be strewn with obstacles.

'Tapie has to lose his vulgarity and acquire culture, depth, before he can be taken seriously', says Jacques Seguela. 'He also has to learn political loyalty.' The right has always accused the entrepreneur of being a 'Leftist without conviction'. But though Tapie has at least put some of his money where his mouth is - for example, he founded a string of small business schools, co-financed by government and industry, whose trainee salesmen are second-generation immigrants, who sell to the Arab world - high-brow Socialists also suspect he is a charlatan.

'The left must beware: Bernard Tapie works for himself and himself alone,' wrote Pierre Berge, a friend of Mitterrand and the managing director of Yves Saint-Laurent, in Le Monde last year. Pierre Mauroy, Socialist Prime Minister from 1981 to 1984, has also commented that Tapie is not his 'cup of tea'.

But Tapie is far too driven a character to give up - Gerard Collee, president of the National Lottery, has even likened his friend's prodigious energy to a nuclear reactor which explodes if it doesn't find sufficient outlet for its heat. Though Christoph Bouchet, Tapie's biographer, says it is tricky to calculate his dwindling wealth - he quotes several sharply differing estimates from both lawyers and accountants, ranging from Fr500m ( pounds 52m) to Fr1.5bn ( pounds 156m) - he believes Tapie has anyway lost interest in business and will scramble back into politics. 'One thing is for certain', Gilberte Beaux adds, 'he cannot do both.'

SERGE RAFFY, the 39-year-old co-editor of the left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, arrives for lunch on Benoit Bartherotte's veranda, where a couple of black mynah birds perch in their wooden cage, occasionally adding to the conversation. Two years ago, after an interview in which he confided his political ambitions, Raffy put Tapie on the cover of his magazine, in a mocked-up photograph of him as president in the state robes of honour with the headline 'Tapie veut etre President'.

'People in France no longer believe in

traditional politics,' Raffy says. 'If he is to succeed, Tapie will one day have to create a party of own, perhaps a modern, rather than Gaullist, centre.'

Most believe that Tapie's next move will be to stand for the powerful post of mayor of Marseilles when the colourless Robert Vigouroux's six-year term of office ends in 1995. Meanwhile, Bartherotte will try to persaude his volatile friend to settle near Marseilles, buy a vineyard and learn to acquire the grace with which to temper his overweening ambition.

'But he's like an impatient child,'

Raffy continues, 'he must learn to go for the long haul.'

'Tapie president]' screeches one of the

mynah birds.

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