Meet France's First Celebrity CEO

Jean-Marie Messier bounds into the television studio in an open-collared shirt and sport coat. Over the next two hours before a live audience, he chats with a parade of guests, from the actress Sophie Marceau to a young French ski champion to whom Messier confides: "For me, skiing is a physical necessity. I have a need for risk." Periodically, the cameras cut away to interviews with Messier's relatives and video clips of the Vivendi Universal (V ) chief executive cooking dinner at home and visiting his old high school in Grenoble.

In the 44-year-old Messier, France has its first celebrity CEO. His appearance on the May 27 broadcast was the first time a corporate boss had been featured on the France 2 network's popular talk show Can't Wait for Sunday. That's no surprise: Most French business leaders try to keep their private lives out of the limelight. And the French press usually obliges by limiting its coverage to press conferences, respectful interviews, and carefully staged photo ops.

Messier is changing all that. Certainly, his public appearances are choreographed, too. But he's going for a new kind of image: young, hip, and good-natured about the many barbs that come his way. On Can't Wait for Sunday, Messier bantered with Yves Lecoq of the Canal+ puppet show Guignol, which regularly pokes fun at Messier as a precocious brat with a fierce acquisitive streak. Guignol coined the moniker J6M, shorthand in French for "Jean-Marie Messier, Myself, Master of the World." Some wondered whether the Messier puppet would be quietly retired after Vivendi Universal took over Canal+ in last year's merger with Seagram Co. Not only did the puppet survive but Messier has happily adopted the mocking nickname, publishing an autobiography last year entitled

There's a serious side to Messier's public profile. In recent weeks, he has given a series of interviews to middlebrow publications such as the daily newspaper Le Parisien, arguing that the French are too mistrustful of capitalism and should loosen traditional state controls on the economy. While he's France's most powerful businessman, with holdings from Hollywood to Osaka, Messier takes pains to stress his middle-class childhood as an accountant's son. "I wasn't programmed to be a boss," he said on Can't Wait for Sunday. "It was a succession of chances."

Such talk makes some people wonder if Messier might run for public office someday. He brushes aside such speculation, saying he hopes to run Vivendi Universal for many years. He plans to move his wife and five children to New York City this fall, suggesting that he has no immediate political plans. But as his wife Antoinette, a physics professor, told an interviewer on France 2: "Jean-Marie astonishes us every day." Stay tuned for more surprises.

By Carol Matlack in Paris

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