Jo Johnson

French farce

Jo Johnson on how, once again, France has failed to become the financial 'champion of the universe'

It is Hollywood’s most predictable script. ‘Dazzle foreign investors, force them to spend as much as possible and then drive them out once they’re broke.’ For the third time in a decade, the French are beating a humiliating retreat from Beverly Hills. This time the French national champion in question – Vivendi Universal, a once mighty conglomerate run into the ground by a megalomaniac called Jean-Marie Messier – has taken such a drubbing, it is doubtful that there will ever be a sequel. For the past 12 months, a company that was once the undisputed flagship of French capitalism has been on its knees begging its banks for mercy. France’s largest private-sector employer has escaped bankruptcy thanks only to the embarrassed intervention of the French establishment. An auction of its Hollywood businesses started in earnest this week. By the autumn, Vivendi Universal hopes to be shot of Hollywood once and for all.

Vivendi Universal destroyed going on for $100 billion trying to put France back on the map of the US-dominated media industry. High-level political backing for an industrial grand projet which would challenge the ‘soft power’ of the US media-industrial complex makes the lowering of the Tricolore hard to swallow. To understand why requires a small flashback. In June 2000, just a few weeks after US stocks surged to their final bull-market peak, Messier was feted as the very incarnation of ‘la France qui gagne’. The 43-year-old Napoleon lookalike, a brilliant but greedy technocrat with little hands-on business experience, had just astonished the world. Vivendi, a 19th-century water utility once known as the Générale des Eaux, had just announced the largest ever French takeover of a US company. The French cock crowed with delight as Messier ponied up $40 billion to buy Universal Studios, maker of Jaws and E.T.,

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