MEDIA: Headliner - The tough cookie who faced down the French government - Vivendi chairman Messier can take all the flak he is getting, Alasdair Reid says

No-one's saying that Jean-Marie Messier has actually enjoyed the events of the past two weeks, but it's hard to imagine a temperament better suited to surviving the sort of vilification campaign he's faced.

Messier, the chairman and chief executive of Vivendi Universal, is clearly one of those annoying, irrepressible people who believes that bad publicity is infinitely better than no publicity at all. In fact, you suspect he has a politician's relish for the cut and thrust of public life. That's not to imply he's a cynical bruiser or a dinosaur with a limited central nervous system. We're not talking the French equivalent of Normal Tebbit or John Prescott territory here. Far from it, Messier is a smooth operator.

If there's flak flying, though, you can bet that Messier will be the last one running for cover. If there's a fight to be fought, he's clearly up for it - especially, you suspect, when the opponents are as petulant as the forces of the cultural establishment and the soft left, which have been trying to bate him since 16 April.

That was the day he decided to cut short a holiday in the Bahamas and return to Paris to sort out the growing crisis triggered by poor financial results (the fifth straight year of losses) at Canal Plus, which is controlled by Vivendi. Before the day was done he had fired the Canal Plus boss Pierre Lescure and all hell had broken loose.

The film and TV world rose as one to howl in protest. Johnny Depp, Catherine Deneuve and that honorary Frenchman David Lynch were in the front line.

There was a demonstration by Canal Plus employees in central Paris and popular presenters, including Antoine de Caunes, have been urging viewers to cancel their subscriptions.

Messier has also been mercilessly lampooned on a latter-day French version of Spitting Image; and a public forum show on Canal Plus the other day turned into a bitter collective diatribe against him. The show also attacked - some might argue threatened - the man Messier has lined up to replace Lescure, Xavier Couture.

Coverage on this side of the channel has focused on cultural and political issues that are rather difficult for us to understand. In France there seems to be a kind of cultural xenophobia, or, at best, a recalcitrant chippiness about the fact that the world no longer sees Paris as the centre of the style universe.

Canal Plus is one of the biggest backers of French-language film and TV content and the establishment (ex-prime minister Lionel Jospin was not slow to wade into this aspect of the debate) believed that French culture was safe in Lescure's hands. Whereas Messier - well, he's the French version of a jumped-up caterer, isn't he?

Actually, it's not food, it's water. Vivendi (previously called Compagnie Generale des Eaux) was France's top manager of water works until it began diversifying into trains (it owns Connex in the UK, for instance) and multichannel TV. Messier, say his enemies, is not only a philistine but a philistine who's been corrupted by Anglo Saxon attitudes - the inevitable outcome of his acquisition, back in 2000, of Universal Studios, the deal which propelled Vivendi into the global media big league.

Many sources in Paris, however, say that culture is not the real story here. Jean d'Yturbe, the chairman of Bates Europe, comments: "Canal Plus has made some bad decisions in the past and Lescure is ultimately responsible for those decisions. Someone needed to fix the situation and Messier is doing it. The nature of the reaction to him is a lot to do with the way that Canal Plus has been run almost as a family business. I don't really think the cultural angle is so important."

Marie-Jose Forissier, the chairman of Initiative Media Worldwide, isn't so sure about that. "The way we French regard the media as a cultural product is deep in our psyche,

she says. "It's hard for you to understand this because you have the BBC. Messier is saying that we shouldn't be so parochial and have to be open to the realities of the world - that businesses can't lose money."

So perhaps the "cultural

problem is that Messier has just become a tougher businessman since acquiring Universal. Forissier wouldn't put it that way. "Maybe you become a bit more pragmatic when you go to America, but I think he's exactly the same guy,

she says.

So will he survive? Absolutely, d'Yturbe says. "They're trying to destroy him but already people are starting to feel that they've gone too far,

he says. "He may not always be the most diplomatic guy. But he is very shrewd and sharp and he is respected for that."


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