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Notorious French millionaire Tapie risks it all, again
French businessman Bernard Tapie has surprised France by acquiring one of the country’s most important regional press groups. Will the new venture pay off for the man who once went from high office to a jail cell?
The controversial French businessman Bernard Tapie is back in headlines after buying out one of the country’s most important regional newspapers this week, a move that has raised suspicion over the man’s new business and political agenda.
On Thursday, France learned that the 69-year-old Tapie, a onetime cabinet minister who amassed a massive fortune in the 1980s only to lose it all, was part of a business deal worth 50 million euros that will give him control over some of southern France’s most widely circulated newspapers, notably the Marseille daily La Provence.
Tapie is famous in France for his past high-profile and high-risk investments, his political ambitions, and for questionable practices that landed him behind bars. However, he has never shown interest in the print news industry before, forcing many to speculate as to whether his new acquisition is not a stepping stone into Marseille’s mayoral office.
A rollercoaster ride
While he once harboured ambitions to become a professional race car driver and a singer, Tapie first gained recognition for taking over and saving failing French companies. His strategy included renegotiating debts and diversifying business, but especially and more controversially, slashing jobs.
He amassed one of the largest French fortunes in the 1980s, buying in 1986 Olympique de Marseille (OM), one of France’s oldest and best football clubs, and taking over the sporting goods company Adidas by the end of the decade.
Lured into politics, he pulled off a surprise election victory in 1989 to become a French MP representing Marseille. Three years later he agreed to sell off holdings, including the Adidas brand, in order to accept a job as a cabinet minister in the Socialist government of president François Mitterrand. But his ministry career would be short-lived, ending in 1993 with an election defeat for the left.
As a politician Tapie added to his visibility as a fierce critic of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, directly confronting the anti-immigration firebrand when others preferred avoiding him publicly. Nevertheless, his business background won him few friends on the French left.
In 1996 he was convicted on charges of coercing a witness to lie about match rigging in a case involving OM football club; a sentence that forced him to step down as an MP and to spend 12 months in prison.
The match rigging scandal relegated OM to France’s second-tear division and bankrupted Tapie. He emerged from jail penniless and tried to rebuild his career by writing books and hosting TV shows, but with limited success.
However, in 2008 a French court awarded Tapie 285 millions euros in a convoluted 13-year trial over the irregular sale and purchase of Adidas. Effectively, the ruling re-launched the businessman that had once lost everything.
The right investment?
Part of the cash award from the “Adidas affair”, as the case is known in France, has enabled Tapie to now buy the influential regional newspapers. Doubting he will be satisfied - or interested - in directing a newsroom, many in France are wondering what the lifelong entrepreneur’s next move will be.
Observers in the French media say Tapie will also likely face a string of challenges. At the newspapers, the new boss could face stiff opposition from journalists who are well aware that layoffs were his original field of expertise.
Indeed, on Thursday many media outlet pounced on the opportunity to publish one of Tapie’s most infamous quotes: “Why buy a newspaper when you can buy journalists?”
And if he does hope to use his newfound position of influence to make a run for city hall in 2014, he will run into an army of political opponents. The mainstream left and right already have their candidates virtually picked, according to the respected Rue89 online news site.
The far-right and far-left have lost no time in attacking Tapie over his latest purchase. The far-right National Front accused Tapie of being in bed with both the ruling Socialists and the conservative opposition UMP party, and of “masking” his “evident” political plans. France’s Communist party said “La Provence, Marseille and its people have good reason to worry” in a statement in which it warned that in the course of his career Tapie had “eliminated more jobs than he created.”
Tapie’s new venture is indeed a big gamble. The question, as so often has been in case in his life, is whether it will lead to a big payoff or bury him.