Lunch with the FT: Jean-Marie Messier

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The fallen Vivendi chief talks about the pain that came with his sudden transition from media mogul to near nobody, and his long journey back to respectability

Waiting at a corner table in the Stella Maris, a chic little restaurant by the Arc de Triomphe, I think back to the last time I saw Jean-Marie Messier. It was October 2002, and he was denouncing me as a general disgrace to humanity at a packed press conference in Paris. Gesticulating at me from his dais, Messier urged the assembled throng to condemn me for intruding into the sanctity of his vie privée.

As a Paris correspondent charged with chronicling his rise and fall for the FT, I had had a turbulent relationship with Messier. A figure of Napoleonic stature and ambition, he had believed passionately that Vivendi Universal, the sprawling media empire he had assembled in a flurry of audacious deals, was destined to eclipse the goliaths of the US entertainment industry and that he would dethrone Rupert Murdoch.

In his own account of his downfall, released at that 2002 press conference as Mon Vrai Journal, he attacked me and Martine Orange, the Le Monde journalist with whom I wrote a book about Messier’s adventurism. I had “used methods more worthy of a tabloid rag than a business newspaper”, he said, referring to some awkward questions about a pharaonic redecoration of a $17.5m Park Avenue duplex that Vivendi had bought for his use. “The harassment was permanent,” he wrote. “Never get angry with newspapers, especially Le Monde. They are so powerful. And if they decide to use their power against you unscrupulously, on the pretext of revealing the truth to their readers, you will always lose.”

More than six years later, Messier has written a new book, about the current financial crisis. The lunch has been brokered by Messier’s friend and former colleague Laurent Perpère, once chairman of the football club Paris St Germain and now senior partner of Brunswick in France. (The club had been among the many playthings Messier bequeathed to his successors, along with a 3,000-work art collection, a palazzo in Venice and a good-sized private air force, including a helicopter, four Gulfstreams, and a brand-new Airbus A319). Through Perpère, Messier says that, although hurt by “gutter-press comments” in my book, he now practised “le pardon des offenses”. He would be in touch. A month and a half passes, but eventually Messier’s office calls. The lunch is on.

He looks scarcely changed, the same red Légion d’honneur gong in his lapel, the same dark blue suit, the same bustling walk. Now 52, he has some grey about the temples and a less manic feel to him but the travails of the past few years have hardly ravaged his lightly tanned features. “Good to see you again,” he says, with a reasonably warm smile as he sits down on my right.

On chatty terms with the waitress, he is given the only menu with prices – even though the FT is paying. He selects the jambon ibérique, to be followed by the salmon Stella Maris, which comes with a marmalade of marjoram and a few streaks of olive oil. I order a starter of carpaccio de Saint Jacques – some translucent slices of scallop – and also go for the salmon as a main course. He is “fine without wine” and so am I.

The financial meltdown has presented the man behind one of the biggest corporate disasters of our era a glorious chance to stage a comeback. In July 2002, the self-styled “J6M” (short for Jean-Marie Messier, moi-même, maître du monde) was abruptly sacked from Vivendi, hounded by regulators, the media and an outraged public. As his successors dismembered his transatlantic empire, Messier descended into what he terms “a period of fear and anxiety”. Fined $1m by the Securities and Exchange Commission, denied the €21m severance package he had demanded in return for his resignation and barred from holding directorships in the US for 10 years, it looked to friends as though he might lose the will to go on.

“That was a very difficult period: very heavy, heavy duty,” he acknowledges, as we drain our amuse-gueules, small cups containing frothy artichoke soup. “You have to fight against yourself, to ask yourself a lot of questions. It’s really a survival story. But you want to be alive.” I ask whether his Catholic faith helped him in this period. “I would not say so,” he says, after reflecting on it for a few seconds. “The real motivation is to be alive, to restart, to kick yourself and stand up again.”

Breaking the promise he made in 2002 to stay “below the radar”, Messier has just published a book, Le jour où le ciel nous est tombé sur la tête (The Day the Sky Fell on our Heads), which he claims provides a blueprint for how the world can save capitalism from its “assassins”. These, he claims, are the same unscrupulous short-sellers and jumpy rating agencies that laid low Vivendi. More than that, though, it represents his bid for rehabilitation, an end to a period in which mere mention of his name provoked head-hanging embarrassment. Jacques Chirac at one point accused Messier of suffering from a “mental aberration”, while Marc Viénot, one of the grandees of French capitalism and a Vivendi board member, described the whole project as “childish”.

Messier says he is a regular at the Stella Maris, which is just a few yards from his old office in the Vivendi headquarters on Avenue Friedland, but denies that it is an “immovable habit”. In the old days, the three sharp-suited young men at the next table would have been following our conversation with interest. Vivendi’s ownership of Canal Plus, the mainstay of Gallic cinema, and countless publishing houses, meant that Messier in his prime controlled the commanding heights of France’s creative industries, a position that made him the subject of overwhelming media attention. Rupert Murdoch, who otherwise resolutely refused to reciprocate Messier’s competitiveness, used to tease him for this, saying that the star-struck Frenchman had “never met a journalist he didn’t give an interview to”. Today, other diners register his presence not at all.

Messier’s gamble – that sufficient time has passed for him to stage his return from Elba – is bold. By the standards of today’s corporate rogues, the bankers who have destroyed not just their companies but entire economies, Messier looks like a choirboy. But still, it takes chutzpah for the man who, in the eyes of his fellow Frenchmen, did most to discredit the corporate world at the time of the last crash now to start lecturing others on good governance.

Messier is preoccupied with bankers’ excessive and poorly structured pay. Given that he was paid about €10m in 2001 and 2002, years in which Vivendi notched up what were then the largest losses in French corporate history, and fought hard to claim a further €20.6m pay-off, it is all a little rich. Messier, I remember, never lacked nerve.

It is hard not to feel some sympathy, though. The past few years have been tough. He has lost not only four of his six “M”s and status as the almighty président directeur général of a company that had at one brief point been the second-largest in France by market value; but also his marriage. He and Antoinette Fleisch, the general’s daughter he married in 1982 and mother of his five children, separated in 2005.

The sudden transition from media mogul to near nobody was painful. “From one day to the next, a full diary, filled with meetings, contacts, trips, honours, work, friends, false friends, suddenly reduced to nothing. Just emptiness,” he remembers. Messier was crushed by the way he had been abandoned by his former courtiers and lynched by the media. “A real manhunt,” he has called it.

Today, however, he makes it a point of pride to forgive those who kicked him when he was down. Everyone, I ask? “We are together, so I have made no exceptions,” he replies. I remark that this is an impressive quality, but he disagrees. “It’s just pragmatic. Forgiving people is what you need to do to rebuild yourself. The least trace of bitterness will stop you moving on. See those who betrayed you, so that you can work with them. Because to work is to live.”

The first person who convinced Messier he could make a comeback was Herb Allen, whose boutique bank, Allen & Co, hosts an annual conference in Sun Valley attended by the big players of the media industry. Allen also told him that he had to use his own name for the advisory boutique Messier was thinking of creating: “Your name’s your best asset. If you don’t call the company after yourself, you haven’t understood anything about this country [the US].”

At the turn of the millennium, Messier was, in the words of one commentator, the “perfect Frenchman”. His training at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration and then the Inspection Générale des Finances set him on a fast-track up the classic cursus honorum for those seeking glory in service of the Republic. Instead, however, he flipped to the private sector, to Lazard, and then, six years later, aged just 37, jumped again, this time to run Générale des Eaux.

A highly political water utility, which he promptly rebranded Vivendi, it was an unlikely vehicle in which to attempt the conquest of Hollywood. This began in earnest in 2000, with the launch of the largest ever French takeover of a US company: Messier paid $42bn to buy Seagram, owner of Universal Music, then producer of one in every three albums sold in the US, and of Universal Studios, maker of Jaws.

In total, Messier would spend more than $100bn on acquisitions in pursuit of his goal to create the world’s number-one entertainment company. A strange blend of arrogant technocrat, wannabe Hollywood showman and smooth investment banker, Messier became a symbol for a new generation of can-do French business leaders. He also appealed to a certain cultural nationalism, raising hopes that France, ever protective of its “exception”, would be able to hold out against US cultural hegemony. “We will beat all the Yahoos of the world,” he promised. At the time of the Seagram takeover, he was praised by Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of France’s most visible public intellectuals, for refusing to allow French culture “to live in permanent surrender to large American corporations”.

Messier did not lack for vision. He thought big, outrageously big, far beyond the limits of what anyone could conceivably achieve. In the end, though, he clocked up unimaginable losses, squandered the confidence of his bankers, dismayed his investors and came within an ace of bankrupting the company. Far from being the embodiment of “la France qui gagne”, as he had hoped, Messier became a byword for executive egoism and managerial incompetence. As Edgar Bronfman Jr, whose family lost a fortune on its Vivendi stock, explained to me, the group suffered from two gigantic failures when one alone would have been fatal. “First, we were too early, way too early, and that’s the same as being wrong. Second, value creation is all about execution and we did not execute.”

Today, however, Messier thinks small. After suffering the hysterical opprobrium and vilification now being meted out to the likes of John Thain, the erstwhile chief executive of Merrill Lynch, he lost all appetite for running public companies. And he points to his boutique advisory firm, Messier Partners, as evidence that he is “no longer on a size trip”. The mergers and advisory practice consists of 20 professionals, based in London and New York. Given the market, he seems surprisingly busy. (Our one o’clock lunch must end on the dot of 2.30pm, I’m told.)

In December, for example, the firm represented the French oil group Total in its $45m acquisition of a near 20 per cent stake in Konarka Technologies, a solar energy company based in Lowell, Massachusetts. Many of his clients are those who have known him for decades, among them Maurice Lévy, chairman and chief executive of the French advertising firm Publicis, which retained Messier in 2007 for its $1.3bn purchase of online specialist Digitas.

Messier’s journey back to respectability has been slow, but it is now almost complete. That he is spending more and more time in the Elysée, advising his old friend Nicolas Sarkozy on the banking crisis, has done his image little harm. Messier’s book is unstinting in its praise of the French president, who is said “without doubt to have something of Zorro in him”. I suggest to Messier that he is preparing a return to public life. As someone who supported Sarkozy in the mid-1990s, when the politician was pushed into the wilderness after making the tactical error of supporting Edouard Balladur in his failed bid to wrest the leadership of the centre-right from Jacques Chirac, Messier is owed a debt of loyalty by the president. In a monarchical system such as France’s, this helps. Messier mumbles something about “simply wanting to make his experience available to all”.

The book itself is readable and engaging but few of Messier’s proposed remedies – which include a ban on naked short-selling, curbs on the purely speculative use of derivatives and regulation of today’s “shadow banking” system – are original. It is, none the less, good to see him back in the game. “For good or bad, my name kept some notoriety,” he says, preparing to leave, a few minutes past 2.30pm. “Some people may be angry to see me write a book. But others may be interested to see a committed observer share some ideas on how we can get out of the worst crisis of capitalism the world has ever seen.” Indeed. Welcome back, Jean-Marie.

Jo Johnson is the FT’s Head of Lex

Stella Maris
4 rue Arsène Houssaye, Paris 75008

Iberian pata negra ham
Scallop carpaccio, with mango sauce
Stella Maris salmon, served with olive oil and marmalade of marjoram x2
Evian water
Coffee x2

Total (including service) €123

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