Pierre’s French kiss-off

Vivendi U's Messier bids adieu to Canal Plus head

Updated at 9:31 p.m. PT

Vivendi Universal riveted showbiz auds on both sides of the Atlantic Tuesday with award-winning daytime drama.

Chairman Jean Marie Messier sacked nemesis Pierre Lescure as supporters of the Canal Plus chief took over a Paris TV station while he cried and blew kisses on air.

The world-class display of corporate histrionics makes Viacom’s Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin look like kissing cousins.

In France, politicians, the press and a media industry that already considers Messier a turncoat for demanding profits and moving to New York, howled with affronted nationalism.

In Hollywood, Universal Studio insiders said Lescure hasn’t been around much over the past few months and his departure won’t hurt the studio. But they acknowledged his unique role as one of France’s most well-respected and well-liked execs.

“I think it’s sad because Pierre was a great person and a charismatic and creative person,” said one studio exec. “On the other hand, it clears the air.”

He and others find particularly intriguing that Messier had a chosen successor on hand, Xavier Couture, general manager of French broadcaster TF1, to immediately take over Lescure’s role.

The swiftness of the move infuriated Lescure, who called Messier “a liar” and “a meglomaniac.”

Couture’s appointment was announced just after Messier stripped Lescure of his title and offered him a watered-down role on Canal’s supervisory board.

In a memo to Canal Plus Tuesday after a 10-minute meeting with Messier, Lescure said Messier “offered to kick me upstairs.” Lescure replied, “No thanks.”

Meanwhile, Messier had called journalists and asked them to come to the Viv headquarters for an impromptu press conference.

“I’m personally sad to see Pierre Lescure go,” Messier stated. “Denis Olivennes reaped the consequences of the management problems at Canal Plus, and now Pierre Lescure has reaped those consequences, too. The departure of Olivennes was not the beginning of those management problems but the beginning of the end.”

Canal COO Olivennes resigned April 12.

With Lescure ousted, Vicent Grimond, a senior exec VP of U Studios, is said to be on the way out.

Stephane Sperry, who heads Studio Canal’s U.S. operations, will take an interim role at USA Films as Barry Diller’s USA Network folds its entertainment assets into Universal. USA shareholders will meet to vote on that deal on April 23.

Couture will replace Lescure as of April 24, the day Viv U has scheduled its annual shareholders’ meeting in Paris.

That confab promises more operatics with the stock down dramatically and Messier’s vision and leadership under fire.

Viv U shares jumped Tuesday. They closed at $36.05, up 4.56% from the day before amid broad market rallies in Paris and in New York.

Some investors and Viv U staffers said they’re relieved at an end to the festering tension between the two execs. “At least we know where we stand,” said one U exec.

Lescure and Messier have been butting heads since Vivendi merged with Canal as part of a larger acquisition of U parent Seagram two years ago.

The paybox had been a darling of the French TV and film biz, channeling millions of dollars into film production. Lescure, one of Canal’s founders, is a nearly mythic figure in the industry.

Messier imposed American-style performance targets on Canal, which was profitable in France but bleeding red ink from Euro investments in Italy, Poland and elsewhere.

In March, Messier publicly upbraided Canal management and gave it two years to whip the company into shape. Lescure fought back in emails, memos and the press in an escalating public battle.

Messier may have won this round, but Lescure’s still got powerful friends.

Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who is challenging President Jacques Chirac, in upcoming elections, seized on the issue. He said he had asked broadcast watchdog CSA to ensure Lescure’s sacking would not damage Canal Plus’s support for French cinema.

Writer and intellectual Jorgy Semprun, VP of Canal’s supervisory board, said Lescure’s firing violated the charter that defines the relationship between Canal and Viv U.

“We will do everything we can to create obstacles to this decision,” Semprun declared. “We’re going to fight this. Messier must understand he can’t just do whatever he wants.

“TV is about money and markets, but it’s also about the spirit of creativity,” Semprun added. He said he would resign if Lescure was forced out.

Meanwhile, investors Stateside (and Messier himself) largely dismissed speculation that Messier may be forced out himself next week by Vivendi’s board, distraught at the stock price, huge losses and a stream of negative headlines.

Messier insisted he’s on good terms with Vivendi’s board.

“I can’t imagine that would happen. There’s no one there to run the company,” said Michael Nathanson of Sanford Bernstein.

(Liza Klaussman and Alison James in Paris and Adam Dawtrey in London contributed to this report.)

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