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Jean-Marie Messier: A Profile

WEDNESDAY 17th July 2002

"All these horror stories of cultural differences are a joke," said Jean-Marie Messier, as he prepared to move from Paris to New York and cement his position as a globe-trotting mogul and chief of media giant, Vivendi. It seems his enemies are having the last laugh. A fortnight ago, the golden boy of French business finally flew too close to the sun. As he exited his Paris office for the last time after a boardroom ousting, he told his staff, "I am leaving with a broken heart".

Professional Career

It had all gone so well for the cherub-faced leader of the water-turned-communications powerhouse. An accountant's son from Grenoble, Messier worked for oil giant Total, top bank Lazard's and the French finance ministry before taking over the staid utility company Generale des Eaux in 1996.

He changed the company's name to Vivendi and transformed it through a whirlwind of imaginative takeovers, including Canal+ TV, and Universal Studios. Its record company listed artists from Eminem to Pavarotti. He was dubbed J6M - Jean-Marie Messier, Moi-Meme, Maitre du Monde - and enjoyed this epithet so much, he borrowed it for his autobiography.

Adulation of America

Bearing a striking resemblance to another impressive Frenchman, Napoleon, Messier similarly miscalculated when he made his march on New York last year. With his penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue, and deliberately American lifestyle, he alienated his French business base. When he remarked that "French cultural exception is dead", even President Chirac accused him of "a mental aberration".

Meanwhile, those on Wall Street were also left cold by his hubris. He lost the confidence of his American board members, too, when he popped one egg too many in the basket.

Career Crisis

The value of the company assets plummeted and, in March, Vivendi announced a loss of £8.8billion, the biggest in French history. Messier's enemies pounced in Paris, and Jean-Marie started packing his bags. He said himself of his high media profile, "I have made errors."

For the moment, this communications colossus has fallen in the water, somewhere between Europe and America. But he has proved his canniness and financial creativity before, and has even recently been mooted as a future president of his country. Observers of his dramatic rise and fall would be hasty in writing off this energetic Frenchman just yet.