French fried as Vivendi unplugs Canal topper

PARIS — Ousted Canal Plus topper Pierre Lescure bid a bitter farewell on air Tuesday as the paybox’s unions and staffers commandeered the station’s programming in front of a studio audience gathered to watch a satirical news show.

“Jean Marie, get off our backs,” they chanted as Lescure teared up and blew kisses.

The writer of the hugely popular satirical puppet show “Les Guignols,” Bruno Gaccio, used Jean Marie Messier’s own TV cameras to turn Viv U’s chairman into a figure of fun.

“Messier gave the management 24 months to turn round the station’s finances and fired them one month later,” Gaccio said. “How can we trust a guy who can’t even count up to 24?”

The soap opera playing itself out in Paris spilled over onto the French Riviera Tuesday afternoon where much of the Gallic and international industry had gathered for the Mip TV trade show.

Dominique Ferrugia, Canal’s recently appointed head of programming, monitored the play-by-play in Paris via cell phone from a room in Cannes.

That’s where dazed Canal Plus execs and media journalists had gathered for a Mip TV dinner in honor of a new pan-Euro Canal production, “The Lights of Brindisi.”

Studio Canal topper Richard Lenormand leaned on the bar and sadly shook his head. “This is such bad timing,” he said, citing the shareholders meeting and the upcoming French presidential election.

Added a stunned Ferrugia, “This is so abrupt. We just came from a meeting with Showtime’s Jeff Offsay where we were discussing original programming.”

When told that Messier had declared to journalists that “Canal Plus had lost its soul,” Ferrugia told Daily Variety, “I don’t know if he’ll find it with Xavier Couture.”

Mip participants from all over the Euro TV and film biz were reeling from the news of Lescure’s ouster Tuesday, and deals on the Croisette were quickly overshadowed.

“This is an enormous trauma for the business. It’s not just about a change in personnel,” producer/director Daniel Leconte told Daily Variety.

“Lescure and Couture are from two different worlds. Lescure is a journalist and dreamer who created the identity of Canal Plus, and since then Canal has nourished the dream of many people in the TV biz. Couture is a bureaucrat.”

Needless to say, dinner was never served at the Canal Plus event in Cannes.

Canal execs returned to Paris for Wednesday’s 11 a.m. staff meeting, when employees will decide, among other issues, whether to go on strike and picket outside next week’s shareholders’ meeting.

Supporters who gathered around Lescure in Paris included Denis Olivennes, who resigned as Canal Plus chief operating officer last week, Philippe Gildas of Canal’s supervisory board, paybox honchos Alain Chabat and Antoine de Caunes, Studio Canal managing director Brahim Chioua, producer Alain Sarde, Wild Bunch’s Vincent Maraval and Richard Grandpierre, the inhouse producer of “Brotherhood of the Wolf.”

“We’re here because we support Pierre Lescure,” Maraval told Daily Variety. “Without him we’ve no guarantee of our independence.”

TV comic and “Asterix and Obelix” helmer Chabat said he was “shocked and saddened” by the firing. “Without Pierre Lescure Canal Plus is nothing.”

(Andrea R. Vaucher in Cannes and Jill Goldsmith in New York contributed to this report.)

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