Monsieur entertainment Jean-Marie Messier

Series Title
Series Details 24/05/01, Volume 7, Number 21
Publication Date 24/05/2001
Content Type

Date: 24/05/01

Jean-Marie Messier is a walking contradiction.

France's highest paid boss - his annual salary topped €4.27 million last year - is regularly cited as the epitome of a tough new breed of French global capitalist.

His company Vivendi-Universal is the world's second largest communications conglomerate - only AOL-Time Warner is bigger - and he happily divides his time between the firm's Paris headquarters and its New York power base.

This week, Messier sealed a €423 million deal to buy online music platform, which will help provide Vivendi-Universal with the technology to power Duet, its music-distribution alliance with Sony.

Messier declared that Vivendi-Universal would “continue to grab opportunities that present themselves as a result of the e-crash” to achieve its ambition of becoming “the world leader in online music distribution”.

It's the sort of ballsy language used by many a self-made tycoon, but Messier is anything but. He is 100&percent; the product of the old-style French dirigiste business culture that US stock market commentators so love to heap scorn on - what his more uncharitable countrymen would call a technocrat.

The Vivendi-Universal chairman's CV could happily be exchanged for that of almost any top member of the French politco-industrial elite.

Between 1976 and 1982 he studied at the prestigious Ecole Nationale de l'Administration (ENA), France's fabled school for bureaucrats.

Then in 1986 he took up a post as a senior advisor to future French prime minister Eduard Balladur.

Balladur was at that time minister in charge of privatisations in current French President Jacques Chirac's government - the first of two left-right cohabitations during François Mitterand's 14-year reign at the Elysée palace.

When the Chirac government fell in 1988, the faithful Messier slid effortlessly into a top post at the Lazard-Frères bank, continuing a long tradition of French bureaucrats taking up top posts in national industries.

Then in 1994, he was appointed second in command at ailing, bloated and scandal-ridden national water company Générale des Eaux.

And thus began Messier's meteoric rise to the status of global entertainment magnate.

By 1996 he had become president of the group and he quickly set about turning Générale des Eaux's 700 million euro-a-year debt into something resembling a profit.

Over the next two years he sold off around €6 billion worth of the company's assets, trimmed the workforce by 10&percent; and re-centred the firm's activities on two core businesses - environmental services and entertainment. He also rebaptised the newly-privatised firm Vivendi, a conscious move to break with Générale des Eaux's murky past, which was riddled with kick-back and corruption scandals.

By 1998 the firm was making an annual profit of around €260 million and Messier embarked on a two-year spending and acquisition spree, which sparked allegations of megalomania by many French commentators and earned him the nickname 'J6M' for 'Jean-Marie Messier Moi-Même Maitre du Monde'.

In 1998 Vivendi bought major French publishing group Havas, then the following year Messier began negotiations with Canadian entertainment conglomerate Seagram - which owned Universal studios in Hollywood among other things - about a possible merger.

By 2000 the two groups had decided they would like to join forces but because of the size of the planned merger they had to apply for permission from the European Commission's competition department before the deal could go ahead.

After much deliberation Competition Commissioner Mario Monti finally gave his blessing to the deal on 12 October, on condition that Vivendi sold its stake in UK satellite TV operator BSkyB. With this proviso met, Vivendi and Seagram's shareholders approved the merger by an overwhelming majority and the world's second-largest entertainment group was born.

But despite the allegations of megalomania, many people who have worked with Messier say he is a rather modest man. One Messier watcher speaks of his “ability to listen, his absence of haughtiness and his modesty”.

Other supporters point to the fact that in a spirit of self-mockery he called his recent biography ''.

On a personal level, Messier certainly doesn't seem to have let his success go to his head. He is married with five children, a confirmed Catholic and, apparently, a bit of a prude.

One close associate argues that Messier can be a “charmer and sure of himself but he is always extremely modest”. Messier also like to cultivate an image of a progressive boss, who cares about his employees as well as his shareholders. Vivendi was among the first

of France's big companies to switch to the country's obligatory 35-hour working week, for example and Messier has put in place a number of employee share options schemes. One of his deputies argues that J6M has “a taste for social engineering - there as well he likes to show that he is the best”.

Messier has often clashed with Ernest Antoine Sellière, the pugnacious head of the country's main business lobby MEDEF, over the latter's often hard-line views on the need for labour market reforms in France. The two most recently came to blows earlier this year when Sellière called French companies to stop paying into the country's supplementary pension scheme in a bid to force a reform of the system.

Messier quickly condemned the tactic saying he didn't think “the ultimatum was the best way to encourage social dialogue”. Sellère angrily responded by pointing out that a large percentage of Vivendi staff now work in the US.

“I don't think that these circumstances give him the right to give easy lessons to the people who in the name of 1,220,000 French entrepreneurs are trying to modernise our country's social protection system by looking reality in the face,” he fumed.

Not content with locking horns with a man who ought to be one of his closest allies, Messier has also openly praised one of France's most outspoken critics of multinational groups like Vivendi-Universal.

He recently said that José Bove - the cheesemaking moustachioed anti-globalisation campaigner who shot to fame two years ago after dismantling a partly-built McDonald's hamburger restaurant in the central French town of Millau - was “sincere, clever and had made a good contribution to the debate”.

Aside from Sellière, Messier's most vocal critics in recent years have been members of the French film and television industry.

For years, French filmmakers have insisted that their national cinema must be protected from the commercial might of the American film industry through subsidies and the use of quotas on US film imports.

However, now that Universal Studios, one of Hollywood's biggest film factories, is owned by a French firm many analysts say such arguments are becoming increasingly difficult to justify.

“Now that half of Hollywood is French-owned, they are essentially saying we need to protect French cinema from a French firm,” said one recently.

The filmmakers are also worried that the arrival of Vivendi-Universal could have a negative effect on French pay TV station Canal+, which is currently one of the biggest single sponsors of European cinema.

Vivendi-Universal is the majority shareholder in Canal+ and despite repeated assurances, the filmmakers believe that Messier could pressure the TV station to show more Universal films and reduce its investments in European productions.

Canal+ founder and former President André Rousselet launched a bitter attack on Messier's firm shortly before the Vivendi-Seagram deal, saying the merger was “inspired more by profit than by any other consideration.”

He added that he believed the planned merger was morally wrong.

But while the philosophical arguments over whether Messier's decision to create one of the world's biggest entertainment groups was the right one are likely to rage for years, from a business point of view the move does seem to have paid off.

The group's first-quarter results were better than predicted and most analysts expect Messier, who has reportedly lined up US publishers Houghton Mifflin as his next target, to go from strength to strength.

Not bad for an old-style French technocrat.

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