Paris punches hole in Messier ‘chute

Company tries to reduce debts by selling asset

NEW YORK — First, it was rude French waiters vs. U.S. tourists. Then it was that feuding over Iraq. Now Franco-American tensions are bubbling up again over a new sore spot: Jean-Marie Messier.

On Wednesday, the Paris high court rejected a U.S. tribunal decision to grant the Vivendi Universal CEO his $23.4 million golden parachute payment.

The French stock market regulator said the termination agreement between Messier and Viv U should not proceed, since the board did not approve it. The Paris court has frozen payment until shareholders can vote on the termination deal.

Less than two weeks ago, the arbitration tribunal in New York had ordered Viv U to pay up on Messier’s exit contract, signed by two execs last summer before his ignominious departure from the debt-riddled firm.

Viv U CEO Jean-Rene Fourtou — who’s busily reviewing offers for the entertainment properties amassed by Messier — has promised shareholders that Messier won’t receive a dime of company cash.

U.S. legal experts say Vivendi Universal may have a tough time denying Messier his American-style exit package, regardless of how egregious his dealmaking sins. The contract reportedly has the signature of two board members, then-chief operating officer Eric Licoys and Edgar Bronfman Jr., and lacks a clause for withholding payment for cause.

Viv U said the decision has encouraged it to take “all appropriate legal actions to oppose a payment that it considers illegitimate.” Vivendi promptly presented the U.S. judge with its appeal against the enforcement of the award of the arbitration tribunal and said it is considering “other actions” in coming days.

The two countries’ varying styles are underlined in the opposing legal differences.

Messier publicly scorned American CEO fat-cats and their juicy exit packages, but he never scorned the idea of his own golden parachute in the 11th hour of his ill-fated reign at Vivendi Universal.

The French always thought Messier was too American for their tastes; the Gauls now are galled that he could still emerge victorious in the treacherous game of American-style capitalistic Darwininsm.

Other disputes

The dispute over payment is just one of several legal battles in which Viv U is engaged, including shareholder lawsuits concerning misleading disclosures last year and a dispute with Barry Diller’s InteractiveCorp. over the payment of $620 million in capital gains.

Licoys said he signed the contract, but it wasn’t clear whether other board members had seen and approved its terms.

Messier and Vivendi are also the subjects of numerous lawsuits in France and the U.S. by small shareholders who, like many employees of the company, saw their pensions and savings wiped out.

While at Vivendi’s helm, Messier pursued an aggressive acquisition program, buying disparate assets all over the world. The company’s shares lost more than 80% of their value as Messier’s empire ran up billions of dollars of debt and left the company close to bankruptcy.

Under new leadership, the company is trying to reduce its debts by selling assets.

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