Letter from France

Le Grand Fromage: What the French think of Jean-Marie Messier, Frances new king of content.

By Mark Hunter
Published June 22, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

If content is king, then Jean-Marie Messier is the most uncontested royalty France has produced since Louis XVI took a ride on the guillotine.

Four years ago, the round-faced and youthfully energetic Messier, 43, took over a highly profitable water company, the Ginirale des Eaux, and began pumping its profits into a new-economy powerhouse called Vivendi.

Today, Messier's media mills include Havas, which owns the cream of France's print media, and Canal Plus, the TV network that is the biggest producer of cinema in France. He's the symbol of a new generation of French business leaders. He's also a textbook symbol of a country in which power remains concentrated in the hands of a tiny caste.

Messier comes from a system in which the state trains an elite that goes on to dominate both politics and business. He attended Polytechnique, an engineering faculty founded by Napoleon, and the National School of Administration, which is a lot like going to MIT and the Harvard business and law schools.

After a brief bureaucratic stint as an inspector of finances, he became a star player in the cabinets of two government ministers. Then he spent five years in the banking sector, and joined the Ginirale des Eaux in 1994. He was its CEO two years later. Few American business players are wired into that many power grids.

But unlike many members of his caste who worry about the privileges they might lose instead of the glory they might gain, Messier takes real risks. Nothing obliged him to move beyond the highly profitable water business -- nothing except his own ambition.

In 1997 he sniffed that France was just "a tiny market in international terms." And he quickly saw that new media would make it even tinier. Even now, only three out of 10 French business leaders take the Internet seriously, according to Andersen Consulting. Not Messier. As far as he's concerned, "Not only is the Internet going to become a mass medium, it's going to become the dominant mass medium."

Messier's closest American counterpart is Steve Case, another maverick whose obsessions are stockpiling messages for the media and unearthing the pipelines to the client. Last year, he observed that "you see few connections being made between the world of content and the telecommunications providers." That's how Messier sees his 1999 alliance with Vodafone and the Seagrams takeover.

Though the Case comparison is valid, no American media magnate holds power comparable to Messier. In France, if you are a filmmaker, author or politician, Vivendi can make it a lot easier for people to ignore your existence.

Lately, folks have also noticed that the conglomerate controls a scary amount of information about the French. As the daily Libiration noted, besides portable telephones and pay TV, Vivendi "exploits the networks by which billions of Social Security forms will transit, and it measures the water consumption of several millions of the French -- one day, the client might get worried about that." Messier keeps promising that Vivendi will never abuse its data banks -- which unfortunately reminds people that it could.

Likewise, Messier has said he wants "to reconcile the economic might of a large corporation with the freedom that is vital to the press, and indeed to all creators." But in practice, the large corporation comes first.

Take Karl Zero, whose "Real Journal" program runs on Canal Plus. When Zero inaugurated the show, a very French mix of satire and investigation, he boasted that he had the right to go after anyone in France, including his corporate bosses. Lately Zero says that he can investigate anyone except Vivendi.

But even Messier's opponents pay tribute to his brains and charm. Colette Neuville, president of France's Association of Minority Shareholders, was suing Vivendi in 1997 when Messier called her out of the blue for a 45-minute chat. He asked for a meeting, during which they reached a settlement. "I've sued him four times, and yet we have normal relations," says Neuville. "If he can beat me, he will. But I appreciate his capacity to deal directly with problems that can hurt his company's image."

If Messier has a flaw, says Neuville, it's that "he sometimes reacts too quickly. With more reflection, he'd act in a more effective way." It's the kind of mistake that a brilliant man accustomed to rapid success and the prerogatives of power can make.

Of course, it remains to be seen if the acquisition of Seagram, which the markets greeted by hammering Vivendi's stock, which closed Wednesday at 89.45 euros on the Paris bourse, well off a 12-month high of 150 (an 8.7 percent drop that serves as a post-announcement snapshot of investor reaction), will prove once again that Messier was right before everyone else. Either that, or we'll find out that content alone does not make a king.

Mark Hunter

Mark Hunter has written for the New York Times Magazine, Le Monde Diplomatique and Modern Maturity, among other publications. He has won numerous awards, including the H.L. Mencken Award.

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