France, Take Down The Barricades

It's not easy to render into colloquial French the phrase "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." But that's just what budding French media tycoon Jean-Marie Messier is aiming to do with his planned $31 billion takeover of Seagram Co. For years, the French--the most film-obsessed nation in the world--have seen U.S. movie outfits such as Seagram's Universal Studios Inc. produce hit after hit, while French cinema has languished. No wonder there has been griping about American cultural imperialism.

Now Vivendi, Messier's company, headquartered in Paris just a block from the Arc de Triomphe, could take control not only of Universal but also of other American cultural icons such as Motown Records. All well and good. And if a French company starts turning out English-language global hits such as Jurassic Park, then transatlantic culture wars will quickly become a thing of the past.

But the Vivendi-Seagram deal is a reminder that France is playing with a stacked deck when it comes to the takeover game. Simply put, French companies are pretty much off limits to foreign predators, friendly or unfriendly. Take France Telecom, which has been writing a lot of big checks lately-- most recently for British mobile operator Orange. The French Treasury's 63.6% stake in "privatized" France Telecom means that company will never be courted. Carmaker Renault, which has picked up Asian assets from Japan's Nissan Motors to Korea's Samsung Motors of late, is also off limits, thanks to the French government's 44% stake. And huge outfits such as Electricite de France, negotiating to buy utilities in Germany, are still totally in the hands of the state. This has to change. Only France will suffer from losing the dynamism and technology that foreign investment can bring to the country. Vive la France, et vive le fair play.

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