The once jet-setting Jean-Marie Messier, who transformed a stodgy water company into media giant Vivendi Universal, goes on trial in Paris on Wednesday on charges he misled investors about the company's health as it took on billions of dollars of debt and neared bankruptcy.
Messier and the six other executives on trial, including Edgar Bronfman Jr., a grandson of Montreal business legend Samuel Bronfman, could face prison terms as well as fines if convicted.
The trial is Act 2 in the courtroom drama for Vivendi, after a similar trial in New York. The U.S. District Court in Manhattan ruled in January against Vivendi SA and in favour of U.S. and European shareholders who said the media group lied to the public about its shaky finances. The court ruled that Messier himself was not liable.
In the French case, Vivendi is itself one of the plaintiffs, alongside shareholders.
The French investigation began in 2002. Investigators looked into shareholder accusations that the company published false balance sheets for the fiscal years 2000 and 2001 and issued deceptive information about its forecasts.
After years of probing, Paris prosecutors recommended last year that the case be thrown out for lack of evidence. But the judge ignored the recommendation and ordered Messier and six others to stand trial.
The others are Bronfman, a former executive vice-president; former chief financial officer Guillaume Hannezo; ex-treasurer Hubert Dupont-Lhotelain; ex-assistant treasurer François Blondet; former managing director Eric Licoys; and a former president of a now-defunct branch of Deutsche Bank, Philippe Guez.
One-time 'master of the world'
Messier, now 53, was a star of the French business world during his 1996-2002 reign at Vivendi, when the company expanded from the water utility Generale des eaux into a major media group. He was revered as the embodiment of a new entrepreneurial culture and market savvy taking root in France.
Vivendi's shares lost more than 80 per cent of their value as the company ran up billions of dollars of debt in acquisitions including the Universal film studios and music label in the United States, European pay-TV station Canal Plus, a French publishing arm and France's No. 2 mobile operator. It sold many of its businesses, including Universal, to right itself.
At the height of Vivendi's buying binge, France's popular satirical puppet show, Guignols de l'info, had a character dubbed "Jean-Marie-Myself-Master of the World-Messier."
Messier was sacked by Vivendi's board of directors in 2002 and the company underwent drastic restructuring.
Messier is charged with "transmitting false or misleading information about the prospects or situation of a stock issuer" from 2000 to 2002, "manipulation of stock prices" in 2001 and "misuse of company assets" for a severance package of 20 million euros ($26 million) that he eventually renounced.
Bronfman, who now is CEO of Warner Music Group, is accused of insider trading.
Messier "is determined to show the inequality" of the charges, his lawyer Pierre Haik told The Associated Press before the trial.
Messier was already fined one million euros by the French stock market regulator, the AMF, for giving inaccurate financial information about his company. A Paris Appeal Court later halved that to 500,000 euros.
The trial runs through June 28.