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The Man Who Fell to Earth

5 minute read

I am one of the people who bought Vivendi Universal stock at ?140. Go ahead and laugh, I’m used to it. Today I feel odd — as if I were the only fully dressed person in a nudist camp. Thank you, Jean-Marie, for this moment of solitude.

I am a kind of universal idiot; the boob who believed it. Believed in what? That I was going to become rich, powerful, partake in the absolute quest of human happiness — one attainable with the laws of the triumphant market. Or better yet, that I’d become a little bit like Jean-Marie Messier myself. Why not give it a try? For more than a year, I only wore socks with holes in them, just like Jean-Marie. I also ridiculously parted my hair on the side and wore the permanent, ingratiating smile of a used-car salesman. I even made desperate efforts to avoid being Sophie Marceau’s lover (which of course, Messier has denied). Yes, perhaps I would have liked to be Messier — the all-powerful king, propped up by a conniving board until his company’s stock began to fall, at which point, in a moment of lucidity as sudden as it was suspect, the board reversed itself.

Today, I’m torn between two visions of Messier. First, I see a Shakespearean character: he rose swiftly, lost everything, was betrayed by his peers and stabbed in the back by his own corporate family, eviscerated by the market and misunderstood by all. But he will quickly rise again — stronger, more determined and bent on buying up Mickey Mouse and McDonald’s to create a planetary holding that will reveal to the world the obvious synergies between the mouse and fast food. The other interpretation is Messier as Tartuffe: after rapidly scaling a summit too high for him, Messier was blown away by the lofty winds — revealing just how lightweight he actually was and casting him back to the cow pastures he never should have left in the first place.

Either way, I still bought Vivendi shares at ?140. What a jerk. I am ruined and shamed, but in certain ways I came away richer for having learned:

• That Messier had a problem with time management. “I give Pierre Lescure two years to turn Canal Plus around” — and two months later he sacks Lescure. “I’ll be happy to run Vivendi Universal for another 15 years” — and two days later he resigns. But these are trifles — even I, at times, intend to make love all night but last only 15 minutes.

• That one mustn’t listen to the smooth-talkers. The next time someone says, ‘I’m going to plant a tree,’ he’ll have to have a shovel in his hand before I believe him. With his iron-clad resume, VIP-packed address book and the balls of a drunken woman, Messier passed himself off as a shrewd industrialist when he was in fact at very best a cold-blooded financier (a redundancy of terms, I know).

• That the Bronfman family is a cunning brood, who in selling Seagram to Messier managed the equivalent of selling a Mercedes for $100,000 and, if all goes well, buying it back two years later for $20,000. An $80,000 profit, and they still have the car — all tuned up, to boot. Bravo, wise guys.

• That I should not admire wise guys; they’re ruining the planet.

• That my two-year-old son’s ability to assemble complex structures with his Lego doesn’t qualify him as a captain of industry.

• That there is poetry in small shareholders. At Vivendi’s April 24 general assembly, I witnessed holders of just 10 shares screaming through greed-distorted faces: “Monsieur Messier, what we want are profiiiiits!” Profits — on 10 shares? At best these cretins would be earning a tip, but their avarice is understandable: they are just dreaming as they were taught to.

• And finally, that 4 billion of the 6 billion people on this planet, whose only daily goal is to drum up enough to eat, don’t give a crap about Jean-Marie Messier — and that they’re wrong in that. It’s no doubt owing to our selfish obsessions that they’re in the mess they are.

Can Messier rise again? Possibly. To understand why, let’s take a little quiz. On Wednesday, July 3, 2002, after the Vivendi board accepted his resignation, Jean-Marie Messier left for New York to join his family. How did he travel?

A) On Vivendi’s private jet, even though he no longer worked for the group B) On Air France, economy class C) On a freighter ship, since he now has the time D) Swimming, because this man knows no fear Yes, of course, the correct answer is “A.” Meaning: We’ll be seeing him again soon. He’s incorrigible.

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