French tres, tres upset with Messier's nods to Wall Street

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Imagine that Barry Diller is fired from USA Networks and stars such as Julia Roberts and Robert de Niro rush to his defense. Then, in a wider protest, technicians and presenters lambaste his firing on live TV. Next, Diller's exit becomes the central issue in a lackluster race for the White House-until an extremist right-wing politician scores a big upset the primaries.

Far-fetched? It all just happened in France after Jean-Marie Messier, the New York-based CEO of Vivendi Universal, fired Pierre Lescure, the relatively anonymous CEO and founder of Vivendi's Paris-based Canal Plus cable network. The firing caused street demonstrations in Paris and stirred questions about the future of French language and culture.

Isabelle Adjani, Gerard Depardieu and other celebrities sided with the former Monsieur L'Obscure. Technicians interrupted live programming, and French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin pledged "no one will lay a finger on Canal Plus if I am re-elected." It was the only show in Paris-until last week. Then the elite's introspection was shaken to the core when extreme right-wing presidential candidate Jean Marie le Pen beat Jospin in a shocking first-round election result.

The Messier saga has been forced back to the business pages. But still at risk is Vivendi Universal, the future career of Messier, the most powerful businessman in France, and-arguably-the viability of the French movie industry, the most meaningful in Europe.

Messier, who acquired Universal from Seagram just two years ago, was until recently France's favorite businessman. In his meteoric rise, the 45 year-old Messier transformed the French water utility Compagnie Generale des Eaux into the Vivendi media empire. He acquired Canal Plus, France's first pay-TV network, rolled out digital-TV platforms across Europe and attempted, with Vodafone, to set up the Vizzavi multi-access international mobile portal. Vizzavi was once estimated at a "potential value" of $30 billion. Two years later it is valued at virtually zero.

Cue Wall Street pressure on Messier to fix Canal Plus, which, for the fifth straight year, announced losses, this time of some $400 million. France may have protested, but Vivendi Universal's share price went up after Messier's firing of the Canal Plus CEO. It may not be enough. Vivendi is now under intense accounting scrutiny in the post-Enron climate. Analysts dispute its claim to have outpaced AOL Time Warner's growth rates.

Messier stands accused by analysts of following the "new new trend" too slavishly, and by politicians of gambling with the French movie industry. As part of Canal Plus's charter, it underwrites a certain percentage of French movies to fill its airtime. This protectionism is euphemistically termed the "French cultural exception." But what France has really taken exception to is that Messier, one of its own, has "gone American."

Messier's greatest sin was to move to New York to be closer to the talent and Wall Street. He may survive the current assault, not least because the alternative may be an unpalatable break-up of Vivendi. Even if he does, he will spend the foreseeable future pulling daggers slowly and painfully out of his back.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Ad Age Global and Creativity magazines

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