Jean-Marie Messier, the tycoon who propelled Vivendi Universal to meteoric boom and bust in 2002, expressed limited remorse yesterday on the first day of his trial for embezzlement and misleading investors.
Mr Messier, 53, a senior civil servant turned jet-setting business visionary, told a court in Paris he had pursued a strategy of rapid, international expansion to bring new communications and content together in one company. The strategy was correct but ahead of the "technological possibilities" of its time.
He said that Vivendi Universal (VU), originally a state-owned water company, was working on epoch-making projects – including "a BlackBerry ahead of BlackBerry" – when debts of up to €35bn forced his resignation in July 2002. Although he admitted "errors," he said Vivendi had been hit by a "perfect storm" of events including the 9/11 attacks in New York, the Enron scandal and battles between French and US shareholders.
The trial, expected to last three weeks, is the last of four overlapping legal actions generated on both sides of the Atlantic by VU's collapse and eventual dismantlement. Mr Messier – who liked to refer to himself as "JM" and a "master of the universe" – is accused of making misleading statements, buying his own firm's stock to pump up its share price and taking undue personal rewards, including a €18m golden handshake, which he was later forced to renounce.
Six other defendants include Edgar Bronfman Jnr, a Canadian businessman who fused the media company Universal with Vivendi – formerly Générale des Eaux – in 2001. Mr Bronfman is accused of insider dealing.
In January, the US District Court in Manhattan cleared Mr Messier of any wrongdoing but ruled against VU's successor company, Vivendi SA (VIVDY), which could therefore be liable for billions of dollars in damages to small shareholders in the US and Europe. In the French case, Vivendi SA is not on trial but is a civil plaintiff, alongside small French investors.
Even more confusingly, the French state prosecution service decided last year that there was insufficient evidence to bring Mr Messier and the other defendants to trial. An examining magistrate who investigated the case for seven years insisted that the prosecution should go ahead.
The state representative at yesterday's hearing, Chantal de Leyris, said she would join defence lawyers in arguing for an acquittal. Even before they were made in court, she rejected suggestions that the state prosecutor was being "opportunistic."
Lawyers representing Vivendi's smaller investors have suggested the prosecution service was influenced by the fact Mr Messier remains on good terms with senior business figures close to the Sarkozy administration.
If convicted, Mr Messier could be jailed for five years and face fines of up to €350,000. Shareholders hope that whatever the outcome of proceedings in the US, a French court will order the defendants to pay damages. "We don't want Messier's head on a pole, we just want a fair recognition of our losses," said Didier Cornardeau, leader of a small investors' association.
Mr Messier is a classically French business figure. He began as a high-flying public servant and graduate of the elite civil service college. Between 1996 and 2002, he transformed Vivendi from a water company into one of the world's largest media empires through a mixture of market opportunism and excellent government contacts.
Vivendi's shares eventually plunged by more than 80 per cent as it built up an estimated €35bn debt in acquiring, among other things, the Universal film studios and music label, the cable TV station Canal Plus and the second-largest mobile phone operator in France, SFR.
At the peak of his success, Mr Messier was hailed as a visionary in his homeland and in the US. He was mocked by the satirical television puppet show, Les Guignols de l'Info – broadcast by his own Canal Plus – as "Jean-Marie-Messier-Myself-Master of the World."
In a statement on the first day of his trial yesterday, he said his strategy was to create an international media company capable of bringing together content, such as films and music, with new forms of communication.
"Was this the right vision?" he asked. "I still believe so and it has even become a reality."