Stock rises 10% in Paris due to hostile leverage speculation

NEW YORK — Vivendi Universal said Friday that it plans to sell 6% of publicly traded construction subsid Vinci in a continuing effort to pare down debt.

News comes as Vivendi stock rose 10% in Paris amid speculation in the French press that a group of Gallic businessmen hostile to Vivendi Universal chair-CEO Jean-Marie Messier may have purchased more than 5% of Vivendi stock in an attempt to gain leverage.

Trading in Vivendi shares has been heavy in recent days, and the stock bounced higher midweek, likely spurred in part by news of asset sales. Also, investors may have felt the stock was too cheap to resist and that Messier has started in earnest to nurse the company’s balance sheet back to health.

Market players in Paris, however, have been speculating about a move to sweep up Vivendi stock, although there’s no evidence of a takeover bid in the works or that the trades have been coordinated.

Messier has a number of adversaries on his board, although he survived last week’s meeting with his job intact. The Bronfman family, the single biggest shareholder, is furious at the 60%-plus plunge in shares this year. Charles Bronfman’s board rep, Samuel Minzberg, is Messier’s fiercest opponent.

Rumors have linked Claude Bebear, chairman of giant insurance group Axa and a Messier critic, with some of the trades.

Messier has promised to pare Viv U’s debt by about $4 billion through a series of divestitures of noncore assets. The first move was the June 24 sale of over 15% of Vivendi Environment for about $1.5 billion.

The Vinci stake, which was owned by Vivendi Environment, was worth about $350 million based on Friday’s close.

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