Friday, 21 December 2012

Bernard Tapie is back in business in Marseille

Bernard Tapie (left) with journalist Alexandre Delpérier
Marseille and France are still trying to measure the impact and implications of the business renaissance of one of the country's most colourful and controversial characters and you can almost feel the panic.

Bernard Tapie, who has what could be politely referred to as a chequered past record as a businessman and dabbler in politics, has just bought out one of France's most important regional papers, the Marseille daily La Provence, in a deal worth fifty million euros. The deal also gives him control of several other, smaller, papers in the South of France.

A flamboyant risk-taker, Tapie made his name and fortune in the late Eighties and Nineties as a troubleshooter for failing French companies who was known as a ruthless operator who did not hesitate to slash jobs if he thought it would increase a company's value to the point where he could sell it at a profit.

The high point of his business career came when he bought Olympique de Marseille football club in the mid-Eighties and subsequently took control of Adidas France. He then changed tack and became involved in politics, and his persistance paid off in 1989 when he became the socialist MP for Marseille. This success led him to be appointed as a cabinet minister in François Mitterand's government on condition that he sold off several of his holdings, including Adidas, but he lost that job in 1983 when the left took an electoral drubbing.

It was at this point that his luck began to run out. He was found guilty of match-fixing and witness coercion as Olympique de Marseille's owner in 1993 and was widely suspected of being behind massive financial irregularities which almost bankrupted the club. More bad news followed when he was investigated for subornation of witnesses and complicity to corrupt, and he was jailed for two years in 1995. His private yacht and expensive furniture were sold to help pay off his debts.

But his troubles were far from over and he was prosecuted for tax fraud before being declared personally bankrupt and banned from football. No longer the man with the Midas touch, he scratched out a living for a few years as a TV show host, a writer, an actor, co-starring in a Claude Lelouch film, and he recorded a song with French rapper Doc Gynéco. The political left shunned him because of his shady business dealings and he hit rock bottom.

The pendulum finally swung back his way in 2008 when he won a long-running court battle over the purchase and sale of Adidas and was awarded 285 million euros by the courts. Tapie was flush with cash and back in business.

Which leads us to the present day and his debuts as a press magnate. Owning newspapers has proved to be a stepping-stone to political success for several French business personalities, and it is this possibility which is leading Marseille's business and political communities to wonder just what his long-term plans may be.

Tapie has made many political and business enemies over the years and, as a man who is known to hold a grudge, there is growing speculation that he may use his new found power to get his revenge for what he considers to be past injustices.

The journalists at La Provence see his move as a potential job threat because of his stormy past relations with the paper's editors, and it is feared that he may get his revenge by asserting his authority over it, firing journalists he doesn't like and imposing his own editorial line.

This in turn is worrying local politicians, many of whom consider that he may use his position to relaunch his political career with a bid to become Mayor of Marseille in upcoming elections in 2014. The implications of this could not be clearer for his many political enemies on both the right and the left, and it can also be assumed that some of those businessmen who are currently enjoying the fruits of their business collusion with politicians are also fearing retribution should he succeed in becoming elected.

Their worries are understandable, and they were aptly summed up by one local Green politician, Sébastien Barles, who is afraid that Tapie "is bringing us closer to Berlusconi-style Italy, where affairism, press control, personal control and money are being mixed together in a cocktail which is putting our democracy in peril."

Is Barles exaggerating? Nobody knows at this stage of course, but one would be foolish to forget one of Tapie's most infamous quotes;

"Why buy a newspaper when you can buy journalists?"

Indeed, and now that Bernard Tapie is in a position to buy not only journalists but their papers as well, it would be wise to be wary...

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