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J2M: not quite hero, not quite villain

Jean-Marc Messier, the chief executive of Vivendi Universal, is facing the chop after running up huge debts in his sewage to film studio empire.

He’s a product of the French administrative elite that slips from running Edouard Balladur’s political office (former prime minister), to running a public utility, that somehow winds up privately owned with him in charge. This is not a unique story.

What is different is that Compagnie Generale des Eaux (as it was called) is one of the pioneers of private contracting of waste services, and road sweeping in the UK (operating as Onyx). The company also owns Connex, a private train operator in southern England and Southern Water. The group was renamed Vivendi after buying Canal Plus, the main pay-TV cable company in France. So far, J2M (as he likes to be known) was performing as a French business tycoon: the darling of the conservatives and left alike for being a model for French competition with the world.

However, J2M had the temerity to buy Seagram (the Canadian group which owned Universal studios) in 1998. In response to raised eyebrows among the French intelligentsia about French cultural protectionism, J2M said that the French cultural exception is dead. Now he is assailed by both US players (for his financial affairs) and left to hang by his French associates (who regard him as an Anglo-Saxon traitor).

I’m torn between sympathy for a French pro-free-trade businessman (!) and glee at the likely collapse of a political entrepreneur.

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