Jean-Marie Messier's position as chairman of Vivendi looked increasingly threatened yesterday when a key ally quit as a company director.
The departure of Bernard Arnault, who is also chairman of LVMH, could tilt the balance of the board against Mr Messier, analysts said, as his French supporters lose influence to the North Americans, who are seen as much more hostile to the self-styled "master of the world". The board was due to meet last night.
Mr Arnault, a major figure in the French business establishment, was seen as being close to embattled chairman and chief executive of Vivendi and is even said to have a New York apartment in the same Park Avenue block where Mr Messier famously got his company to buy a $17m flat for his use. However, it is thought that Mr Arnault had felt increasingly shut out from discussions at Vivendi. Some suggest he no longer wants to be associated with the company, which has seen its reputation torn to shreds.
The French newspaper Le Parisien reported yesterday that Mr Arnault wrote to Mr Messier on several occasions recently, seeking clarification about Vivendi Universal's strategy. The paper added that Mr Arnault had become increasingly concerned with general corporate governance issues in the wake of the Enron scandal.
Mr Arnault is credited with helping Mr Messier fend off criticism from US board members at a stormy meeting in New York in May, when directors agreed to set up a corporate governance committee widely seen as putting Mr Messier under supervision.
Including Mr Arnault, five members of the board have left this year, all of them French, leaving 15 directors, including two executive members. The non-executive directors are now broadly balanced between North Americans and Frenchmen.
Mr Messier is charged with recklessly buying assets at the top of the market, running up debts and failing to deliver on a strategy of media convergence. In France, he has been vilified for supposedly downgrading French culture to make Vivendi more American in its media output and style of business.
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