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Tuesday, 2 July, 2002, 04:28 GMT 05:28 UK
Profile: Jean-Marie Messier
Jean-Marie Messier, chairman and chief executive of Vivendi Universal
Jean Marie Messier: Facing the final curtain?

With the resignation of Vivendi Universal boss Jean Marie Messier, France has lost by far its most colourful and controversial business leader.

Jean Marie Messier
Born Grenoble, 1956
Vivendi chief executive and chairman 1994 -
General Partner, Lazard Freres
1989 - 1994
French economy ministry official 1982 - 1988
Ecole Nationale d'Administration 1980 - 1982
Mr Messier held a variety of senior roles in the French economy ministry during the 1980s before going into investment banking.

He took over as head of the staid utility group Compagnie Generale des Eaux in 1994.

He immediately set about transforming the 150 year old company, whose core activities were refuse collection and running sewage plants, into nothing less than a global media and telecommunications giant.

It was an audacious gamble, typical of Mr Messier's flamboyance, and on paper at least, he pulled it off.

Growing pains

Within six short years, the business had been renamed Vivendi Universal, and, thanks to a wave of acquisitions, ranked as the world's second biggest media company after AOL Time Warner.

The company's subsidiaries included the Hollywood film studio Universal, its affiliated record label Universal Music, and French pay TV station Canal Plus.

In Europe, Vivendi also owned mobile telecom services, theme parks, educational publishing businesses, and, of course, its original French utility operations.

The scale of the transformation that Mr Messier had brought about won him many plaudits in France, where business leaders rarely display such unabashed global ambitions.

French commentators joked that on dying, Mr Messier would ascend to the pearly gates to inform St Peter that he had bought out heaven itself.

The colourful chief executive, still in his early 40s, became known as J6M, short for Jean Marie Messier, Moi Meme Maitre du Monde (master of the world.)

Boom to bust?

There was one small problem, however.

Vivendi's unprecedented expansion had been fuelled largely by buy-outs, and, as economic growth began to falter, concerns that the company had paid over the odds for its acquisitions began to mount.

At the same time, resentment over Mr Messier's brash style, which had always irked the more conservative French commentators, began to drown out the earlier plaudits.

Mr Messier's decision to relocate to New York, where he took up residence in a 20 million euro (12.9m; $19.8m) apartment paid for by the company, did not help matters.

More controversial still was his remark late last year that "the French cultural exception is dead," widely interpreted as a condemnation of government subsidies for French art and culture.

This caused uproar in France, where the government's policy of funding the domestic film and music industries is widely seen as an essential bulwark against the global dominance of Anglophone entertainment media.

Financial pressure

Back in the boardroom, things went from bad to worse.

In March, Vivendi Universal unveiled a 13.6bn euro loss for 2001, weighed down by a colossal downward revision in the value of its assets.

The news unnerved investors, who marked the company's shares down by about 60% during the first half of this year.

The day before his resignation, the company's stock surged on exepctations of his imminent departure, a sign that the markets saw him as a liability.

Political pressure

While Vivendi's deteriorating financial performance seems to be the main reason for Mr Messier's fall from grace, there may be more to it than that.

Mr Messier, a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Nationale d'Administration, and a holder of the Legion d'Honneur, is a fully paid up member of the French elite.

However, he was widely seen as an ally of former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, who lost out to centre-right rival Jacques Chirac in the country's presidential elections earlier this year.

Given the close ties between the upper echelons of government and business in France, Mr Chirac's election victory is likely to have done Mr Messier no favours at all.

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