French foes seek action to address Viv U’s woes

Eyes on Gotham meeting to reveal company's future

PARIS — The future of Vivendi Universal is an open question on both sides of the Atlantic as the board plans to meet in New York next week and powerful figures in France send CEO Jean-Marie Messier veiled warnings.

Claude Bebear, head of giant insurer Axa and powerful in French political circles, said Thursday in a radio interview that Viv U has a “strategy problem” and may need a change in management. Bebear is part of a French business elite that’s openly agitated against Messier since Pierre Lescure was sacked.

Some think Bebear’s comments boosted Vivendi stock, which rose 5.74% Thursday to $31.30. The shares have lost half their value since January.

Dueling scenarios

Bebear is said to back a scheme to spin off the showbiz assets Stateside and restore Viv U as a water company. But it’s considered more likely that debt-laden Vivendi will sell off a chunk of Vivendi Environnement, shed a piece of Canal Plus (such as Canal Technologies) or divest the telecom or Internet businesses.

A move is expected soon. Only action can quell rumors that have run the gamut from spinoffs and asset sales to Messier’s firing to a hostile takeover by the Bronfman family. The fireworks come mostly from France, where the press and business and cultural elite who resent Messier as pro-American have kept the gossip mill churning at an unusually torrid pace.

According to daily Le Monde, Messier plans to sell off 15% of the company’s holdings in Vivendi Environnement, with Gallic banks Caisse des Depots et de Consignations and Societe Generale as possible buyers.

French review

Meanwhile, the French Council of State has been reviewing whether Viv U is in compliance with a law that forbids non-European shareholders from owning more than 20% of a French company. If not, the papers say, Viv U may sell 15% of Canal Plus.

French corporate raider and Viv shareholder Vincent Bollore is said to be interested. So is the Lagardere group, which owns 34% of Canal Satellite and 27% of Viv U web Multithematiqes.

Vivendi denies plans to sell Canal Plus. Otherwise the company has stoically refused comment.