French in a Froth: Messier Asks V.P. On Lycée Finances

In one of her first moves as head of the parents’ association at the Lycée Français de New York, Antoinette Fleisch announced that she would create a position of vice president to ensure transparency in the school’s financial dealings.

Elected on June 8 to serve as the new president of the body representing the parents of the Francophile institution that last year abandoned its collection of landmarked Upper East Side townhouses for below-market prices, the wife of former Vivendi Universal mogul Jean-Marie Messier now finds herself at the center of an unfolding drama in the lives of the insular elite of French Americans in New York-one that is playing out on the floor of the French Senate and in the pages of newspapers like Le Nouvel Observateur and the society magazine Paris Match .

The French have not forgotten the spectacular ouster of Mr. Messier from the pinnacle of the Franco-American media giant Vivendi Universal, and so the appointment of Ms. Fleisch to a two-year term finds her enmeshed in an institution that, much like Vivendi under the guidance of Mr. Messier, is facing pointed criticism from French politicians and members of the French community in New York over what they view as the debacle of the Lycée’s financing for its gleaming new $115 million building on East 75th Street.

The deal required the institution to float $94.1 million in bonds underwritten by J.P. Morgan that, over 30 years, will result in a total of $195.7 million in debt including principal and interest. To pay for that debt, the Lycée has committed to increasing revenue at an annual rate of 8 percent per year-which, as reported in last week’s edition of The Observer , was likely to come in the form of tuition increases.

As with many Manhattan institutions, real estate is the most visible symbol of the financial and social power the Lycée had; its overt move to compete with Upper East Side elite private schools, both in its physical plant and tuition costs, would inspire confidence in parents at most competing schools. But the education system in France has traditionally been modest in terms of cost and investment in lavish educational facilities, with both measures aimed at limiting costs so schools can provide universal access to education, largely underwritten with payments from the French government. But with the Americanization of the Lycée-complete with a gourmet cafeteria designed by über-chef and Lycée parent Daniel Boulud-it looks across the Atlantic as though the school has abandoned the French model for a brash American-style development. Over there, it looks like the Lycée has gone native.

The sale of the six gilded townhouses where some 1,000 élèves had trammeled in each morning in the Lycée’s blue blazer and polo-shirt uniforms was the talk of New York’s French community as well as with French politicians in Paris, who were shocked to learn that the school-once hoping to raise $105 million from the townhouse sales back in 2000-only secured $58.4 million for the buildings, which, according to real-estate market reports, were sold at nearly 57 percent of the price fetched by the average Upper East Side townhouse in 2001. French politicians, who questioned the sales at the time, are again smarting over the financing plan that has saddled the school with a $94.1 million long-term debt.

“I didn’t know about the 8 percent increase. You can’t raise tuition like this. The parents already pay a lot. After the third year, it will be too much,” said French Senator Robert del Picchia from his office in Paris. “They must find another way to raise money. Tuition alone can’t cover the costs.”

In March of 2000, Jean Lachaud, a locally elected French representative from Westchester who represents the approximately 60,000 French citizens living in the New York region, met with Lycée board chair Elsa Berry Bankier at her Park Avenue office to discuss his objections to the financing plan, which would float three bonds to pay for a new 157,000-square-foot school building east of York Avenue.

“Elsa Berry assured me that the plan would involve no tuition increases, and that tuition would remain what it was,” Mr. Lachaud said. “Of course, that is a far cry from the 8 percent that has now come out. It absolutely contradicts what she told me.”

In an e-mail to The Observer , Ms. Fleisch, the new president of the parents’ association, declined to comment on her recent election to the post or questions concerning the lack of disclosure of the financing plan. “[The association's] vocation is to represent students’ parents interest, and not to take any kind of public, on or off, position on any subject. We reserve our discussions and opinions to the parents and the board. Therefore … I will not be in a position to speak,” she wrote.

Ms. Fleisch’s silence on the sale of the townhouses has been echoed by the Lycée’s board of trustees and the head of school. Repeated phone calls to Ms. Berry, the chair of the Lycée’s board, and Yves Thézé, the head of school, were not returned.

But the Lycée’s refusal to respond to the matter may show just how polarizing an issue the dumping of its glamorous (if not dated) Beaux-Arts mansions for a high-tech Descartes-inspired building with modern amenities was for the 69-year-old school, which over the years has numbered Philippe de Montebello (director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), Michel David-Weill (chairman of Lazard Freres), the novelist Danielle Steel and Mr. Boulud’s daughter among the students who have passed through the once plaster-covered halls, with rooms such as the Salle d’Honneur and glittering chandeliers.

According to sources close to the school, more than 120 children are on scholarships granted by the French government, which has been struggling amidst a budget crisis to provide financial assistance for expatriates living abroad. Although French Lycées in the United States account for only 8 percent of French students abroad, they take up 22 percent of the global scholarship budget, sources said. The financing of the new school and the prospect of an 8 percent annual tuition hike will only further exacerbate this funding problem, and French politicians said the board did not disclose the cost implications of the construction.

But it is in the larger cultural battle between France and the U.S. that the Messiers find themselves once again at center-stage. There was perhaps no one who embodied this rift more than Mr. Messier. As head of the media giant created after the staid French waste management company inhaled Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s Seagram and its Universal entertainment assets in a $34 billion deal that nearly bankrupted the combined company, Mr. Messier rankled the French sense of financial modesty with a litany of Gallic gaffes. There was his 247-page autobiography- cum -self-reverential- hommage to the nouvelle économie , published in 2000 with the title J6M.com: (which referred to his nickname Jean-Marie Messier, Me, Myself, Master of the World ). Then there was the $17.5 million Park Avenue penthouse that he purchased upon arriving in New York; or the time he proclaimed, “I love my city of Paris, but New York City has been my favorite town for many, many years.” But it was his statement at a press conference in December 2001, held at the St. Regis hotel, that encapsulated Mr. Messier’s abandonment of the French sensibility that values national pride over American-style profits when he pronounced to a reporter from the left-leaning Paris daily Libération that “the Franco-French cultural exception is dead.” The words reverberated from New York all the way to Paris, where Mr. Messier was publicly vilified for embracing American capitalism in his quest to super-size Vivendi.

It was back in 2000, when Vivendi still held the promise of becoming the next global media behemoth, that Mr. Messier swooped in and wowed tout New York. He landed seats on the Whitney Museum board, and his image was reproduced a million times over in the pages of Vanity Fair , using the philanthropy and media circuit as an entrée into the city’s social and financial elite.

Ms. Fleisch followed in tow. She held seats on the board of the New York Philharmonic, and her position atop the Lycée’s parents’ association now marks the family’s return to the public eye. In turn, her social status underscores the school’s importance in the world of the French living abroad.

When the Lycée inaugurated its new school building last September, French President Jacques Chirac arrived to honor the occasion. Both Ms. Berry and the board’s vice chair, François Château, were awarded the prestigious medal of the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite , presented in a ceremony by the consul general of France, Richard Duqué.

The French government is the largest contributor of financial aid to the school, donating more than $928,000 in 2001-2002-nearly double the $493,500 contributed by the Lycée’s own funds, according to the bond prospectus obtained by The Observer . Since its founding in 1935, the Lycée has courted the children of French executives, diplomats and worldly New Yorkers. But while the school maintains that it competes with other elite Upper East Side institutions-citing Dalton, Chapin and Brearley in its comparison of tuitions in its bond prospectus, filed with the city’s Industrial Development Agency-its record on college admissions where three or more Lycée students have matriculated since 1999 is far more modest, including such schools as Fordham University (16), SUNY Binghamton (22) and SUNY Albany (17). Absent on the list are stalwarts of the Upper East Side college admission roster: Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

But with the construction of the new school on the site of a parking garage, the Lycée’s board has rolled the dice in an ambitious gamble, much like that of Mr. Messier at Vivendi Universal, that the school can compete in the hyper-competitive private-school market-even if it involves a cascade of debt that will drive tuition up year after year. In New York, such a gamble is seen as exhibiting the vision and zeal required in a capitalist culture as championed by Wall Street; but in Paris, that same decision is seen as throwing caution to the winds at the expense of progress. Indeed, some French politicians now question whether the Lycée-even if it can fulfill its $94.1 million financial obligations-will have any Frenchness left when it’s all over.

“Obviously, this has been a concern for me the past year. American families have more money; they don’t mind the tuition. But French families can’t afford these costs. The net result is to replace French students with American students. It’s a concern for many French parents,” Mr. Lachaud said. “The rising tuition will decrease the character of the Lycée. And if you diminish the amount of French students, why would you call it the Lycée?”