Americanization of Messier: Vivendi Boss Loses Billions

Three things to take away from Vivendi Universal’s March 5 press conference: The company posted a humongous $11.8 billion net loss for 2001; earnings were in line with the media giant’s projections, and the people of France still consider Chief Executive Officer Jean-Marie Messier a cultural traitor.

The American media may have missed it, but the first question asked by a French reporter at the press conference concerned the fate of the French cultural exception.

Mr. Messier chose not to address the question, because the last time he did he caused a mess of trouble for himself.

That was at another press conference that took place at the St. Regis Hotel on Dec. 17, 2001. The 45-year-old Mr. Messier had come to announce his decision to buy back Barry Diller’s USA Networks, which Universal’s previous owners-Seagram-had sold to Mr. Diller in 1998. The $10-billion deal gave Vivendi much needed distribution networks and consolidated Mr. Diller’s stature in Hollywood. Universal Studios was also set to gain the expertise and leadership of one of the industry’s savviest players.

At first, Mr. Messier, who had gotten thinner and sleeker since moving to New York in September 2001, looked like a natural, batting softballs to the badly dressed, bleary-eyed trade reporters who had gathered. “The ultimate goal is clearly to make Vivendi Universal the global media leader of the future,” he said confidently at one point.

But then Mr. Messier dropped la bombe that continues to shower him with fallout.

Fabrice Rousselot, New York correspondent for the French left-leaning daily Libération , asked Mr. Messier, in French, to address the anxieties rampant in the French movie industry following Vivendi’s American deal.

Though he was responding to a French publication, Mr. Messier delivered his reply in English. His critics say he did this because he really wanted the American media pick up on his answer. “The Franco-French cultural exception is dead,” Mr. Messier said.

By the statement, Mr. Messier was predicting the demise of an intricate system of state subsidies that have protected the French movie industry for years against les grosses majors américaines . At first, the American press didn’t make much of the comment. But Mr. Messier’s former countrymen were immediately outraged. France’s cultural elite view the subsidies program as a kind of national treasure.

Mr. Messier had been in the U.S. for less than six months, and already he seemed to have turned his back on France.

“I am absolutely scandalized by this statement,” railed the socialist French Minister of Culture, Catherine Tasca, the very next day on a national radio broadcast. “That the head of a company … that built its strength in France … should make such a statement in the course of a big capitalistic operation profoundly shocks me.”

Pretty soon, the entire French political and cultural establishments-President Jacque Chirac included-were railing against Mr. Messier, who claimed he had been misunderstood.

In a 2,000 word essay that appeared in the French daily Le Figaro he praised cultural diversity and asked that his remarks not be taken out of their context. He also enlisted the help of glossy Paris Match magazine, which ran pictures of Mr. Messier buying tickets to the Miramax-distributed Amélie at a New York theater.

Given the French press’ questions at the Mar. 5 press conference, Mr. Messier is not out of the merde yet. And though it would be easy to chalk up the resentment to France’s knee-jerk anti-Americanism-a tradition that dates back to late cultural minister André Malraux-Mr. Messier’s public standing in his home country had suffered even before he headed across the pond.

“As a manager and as a boss, he’s never fit into a neat mold,” said his friend Stéphane Lissner, the president of the Aix-en-Provence opera festival that Mr. Messier chairs. “He’s very independent and people don’t like it when you break the ranks.”

Mr. Messier declined to be interviewed for this piece. A Vivendi spokeswoman cited a backlog of interviews and the quiet period required by the S.E.C. prior to a company’s release of earnings. But now that Mr. Messier has been raising his profile in New York and Los Angeles, his critics contend that Americans should view the uproar over his remarks as a cautionary tale.

In David Margolick’s piece on Mr. Messier, which appears in the new issue of Vanity Fair , the only quote given by Mr. Messier’s business partner and employee, Canal Plus chief Pierre Lescure, hints at Mr. Messier’s turncoat tendencies. “In my opinion, if he’s talking to the Son, he already has a deal with the Father,” Mr. Lescure told Mr. Margolick.

Then again, Hollywood’s sharks have a long history of making suckers out of their supposedly more worldly foreign investors. Mr. Messier was born in 1956 in Grenoble, a city some 60 miles from Lyons. He grew up in an environment that he describes as “modest and provincial” in his autobiography, j6m . com . His father was an accountant and his family steeped in well-meaning Catholic values.

In French literature, this is a terrain traditionally associated with ambitious young men who want to take on Paris, the country’s center of power. A recent French magazine special on “The Secrets to Social Success,” fittingly, had a sidebar devoted to Mr. Messier and compared him to a Balzacian hero, Eugène de Rastignac, whose very name is synonymous with social climbing and naked ambition. The point of the piece was to show that Mr. Messier had hit all the right spots early on.

And he did.

After high school in Grenoble, Mr. Messier enlisted in a competitive curriculum of studies and passed the entrance exam to a prestigious state-funded school of engineering, Ecole Polytechnique. He was then accepted into the renowned school of national administration, E.N.A. , that has provided France with presidents, prime ministers and industry barons since its creation in 1945. Serving as a kind of networking pool, the school is a rite of passage for those who want to hold key positions in the country’s administration.

When Mr. Messier tells Vanity Fair that he “came within the French system ‘like a ‘virgin,’” the remark needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Alone, these two schools groom a large chunk of the French ruling class.

For Mr. Messier, the next natural step was the Finance Ministry, where each year one or several positions are usually reserved for those who graduate in the top ranks at E.N.A. There, he took care of the country’s first privatization plans for the right-wing government of Edouard Balladur, before heading off to Lazard Frères, another passage obligé on the road to French prominence.

At Lazard, where former colleagues remember him as driven, smart, not always easy to work with and already extremely ambitious, Mr. Messier was long thought to be the dauphin to succeed the firm’s chairman Michel David-Weill. Made to understand he would share that spot with Mr. David-Weill’s son in law, Edouard Stern, Mr. Messier decided to take off.

“He had the entire French establishment dreaming about him back then,” remembered a member of the said establishment. “He was their wonder boy.”

The next natural, storybook installment to tick off in Mr. Messier’s career would have been to take on a role as a staid, respected and powerful captain of industry. In 1996, he did just that-or at least, that’s what it seemed then. At the age of 39, he was asked to take the helm of Compagnie Générale des Eaux, a water utility and waste company created in 1853 by Napoléon III that had been ruled by 75-year-old Guy Dejouany for some 20 years.

Over those two decades, Mr. Dejouany had managed to thwart a long list of potential successors who worked within the company, so it was no small accomplishment that Mr. Messier-a young outsider-had closed the deal. In the pages of j6m.com, Mr. Messier remembers his appointment at a general shareholders’ meeting. “For almost two years now, I’d prepared myself for this day,” he writes. “I knew it would come, I’d done everything for it.”

What happened at the Générale, nobody could have predicted. The company was a dignified “old lady” with a mixed bag of assets ranging from water and waste utilities to real estate, catering and heath care. It had some problems with local corruption to boot. Quickly, Mr. Messier sought to modernize the company, halt the rampant corruption and in the process identified two key assets – water and environment on one side, communication services on the other – that became the main focus of the group. He changed the company’s name to Vivendi in 1998, after a consulting firm identified about 4,000 possibilities. “It’s gay, lively and evokes life and youth,” he wrote in j6m.com .

Canal Plus, in particular, the country’s only pay-TV channel and the ancestor of cable-TV in France, became a key component of the group. The channel, which also produces films and owns a satellite-TV venture, is a bit of a sacred cow in France and enjoyed tremendous popularity in late 1980s and the 1990s. In 1995, its daily satirical muppet show Les Guignols , which featured doughy effigies of politicians and national figures was credited with helping President Chirac get elected.

Mr. Messier got his own muppet in short order. It was nicknamed J6M, a play on his nickname of J2M. The six M’s stood for: “Jean-Marie Messier, Moi-Même, Maître du Monde,” which translates to “Jean-Marie Messier, Myself, Master of the World.” Mr. Messier liked it so much, he christened his autobiography with the abbreviation.

As Mr. Messier became more of a public figure, he hired the services of a public-relations firm to learn how to interact with journalists-training that is common here in the States but was unusual enough in France to spur a pointed story in Le Monde . Mr. Messier also cultivated the image of a family man who had married the sweetheart of his youth, Antoinette, a trained engineer who also attended an elitist French school and later became a high school physics teacher. The couple have five children.

The problem was, businessmen aren’t really supposed to be superstars in France. Even members of the French financial elite, who look upon Mr. Messier as a kind of hero, grumble about him being a “celebrity C.E.O.” Mr. Messier’s book, which was published in the fall of 2000, shortly after Vivendi’s merger with Universal, was panned. A mix of biography and economical treatise that tried to sell corporate capitalism to the French, j6m.com was largely dismissed as an exercise in Americanness.

“What on earth is the author looking for,” asked a reviewer for Le Monde . “Why does he write at such lengths about himself and his company and so little about society and, for example, not at all about unemployment?”

“Mr. Messier claims the right to make money, a lot of money,” wrote the reviewer of Le Figaro , a right-leaning daily. “It’s so un-French that it deserves to be pointed out.”

Thanks to increasing competition from cable TV, Canal Plus started making less money. The cost-cutting and layoffs that Mr. Messier initiated after the merger with Universal sparked complaints about Mr. Messier’s apostasy.

The heckling intensified when Mr. Messier decided to leave France, where he’d successfully taken the “social elevator” to the top of his native country’s establishment for relative anonymity and a posh $17-million Park Avenue duplex.

But since, he arrived in the states it’s only gotten worse. As he’s attempted to raise Vivendi’s profile with American analysts and journalist, Mr. Messier has waxed poetic about his love for the U.S. and New York, while referring to his homeland as merely “exotic.” He reportedly wears American flag pins on the lapel of his suit.-all sand in the face of the French cultural elite.

The executive’s new slimmer, strikingly fresh-faced appearance, as well as reports that he is seeing French actress Sophie Marceau have only added fuel to the Gallic fire. Not true, Mr. Messier said in Paris Match . But the rumor persists and the French, who really aren’t much more understanding than Americans when it comes to extramarital hanky-panky, have even found time to be annoyed at Mr. Messier’s perceived hypocrisy.

Fortunately for Mr. Messier, New York seems to be giving him a honeymoon. His coming-out party at the World Economic Forum last month was one of the week’s hottest tickets, a concert boasting Lauryn Hill and U2 front man Bono.

Mr. Messier’s social advances in the city also include a recently landed spot on the board of the Whitney Museum of Modern Art. And his wife, now an active PTA member at the French Lycée, recently chaired a benefit for the Orchestre de Paris where Renée Fleming sang and Henry Kissinger and Hélène David-Weill attended. Mrs. Messier also sits on the board of the New York Philharmonic. And there is talk that the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Public Library may invite the couple into their ranks. Knowledgeable observers say Mr. Messier’s entrée into the social whirl is discreet compared to Bertelsmann Chief Executive Thomas Middelhoff’s noisy machinations last year.

Right now, Mr. Messier’s Achilles heel in New York is Vivendi Universal’s falling stock. Prices are down roughly 26 percent since the beginning of the year, and financial analysts are beginning to lose confidence. In New York, where money is king, it’s the only point of real criticism New Yorkers are willing to voice about him.

On March 5, when Vivendi Universal released its 2001 earnings, announcing its hefty $11.8 billion net loss and encouraging 10 percent sales growth for the year, the company had not yet made the switch from French to U.S. accounting procedures. Mr. Messier, switching from French to English, to field questions from the room and the phone lines, again decided to dispel rumors. “We’ve decided to take the bull by the horn,” he announced. “The best way to dispel rumors is to publish absolutely everything.”

Mr. Messier announced that the following morning, Vivendi’s comptroller would talk analysts through a comprehensive accounting workshop and explain, “down to the last euro,” how the company would make the switch to U.S. accounting standards. A short document would be distributed to quench what Mr. Messier called the “hodgepodge of rumors” going around the market.

Still, Mr. Messier managed to sound optimistic as always. “We’ve done well,” he said. Then, in a comment that brought to mind how far his little water utilities company had grown in so short a time, he added, “For shareholders, Vivendi Universal is a better deal than Vivendi.”