Monday, November 28, 1994

The Happiest Yuppie In Paris

Moutet's Paris: The Happiest Yuppie In Paris

The European, 28 November 1994

THE successive corruption scandals involving France's largest water and building utility, the 150 billion-franc Compagnie Générale des Eaux, have made at least one happy yuppie. This is Jean-Marie Messier, 37 and 3/4 [he'll be 38 on 13 December], youngest partner at the prestigious investment bank Lazard since 1989 and former adviser to Finance Minister Edouard Balladur in 1986-1988. Messieur has been installed last week as designated successor of the redoubtable, secretive Guy Dejouany, 73, at what may be France's highest salary, 16 million francs a year.

For 18 years Dejouany ruled as an absolute monarch over his 200,000 employee-strong empire (where he started working in 1961) from his discreet rue d'Anjou headquarters, a chequebook's throw away from the Elysee. Nobody knew his diary, not even his secretary. His personal telephone lines were scrambled by state-of-the-art military devices. Strong men were daily seen leaving his office in a sweat: Dejouany, who never held a meeting of more than three people outside his company board, played at naming favourites, hinting that he would leave them in charge when he retired, then at pitting them against one another. Under his stewardship CGE became the world leader in water treatment, but also diversified into cable and pay TV (he's the one who really got Mitterrand's old friend André Rousselet fired from Canal Plus.)

But now, as revelation after revelation of payoffs to politicians in exchange for local contracts have made Dejouany the target of several judicial inquiries, the old man had to step down. When he announced his choice of successor, the CGE board (not to mention the infighting top executives) were enraged. Messier? This chubby baby Enarque with absolutely no industrial experience and only five years in investment banking under his belt? Peugeot's Jacques Calvet, a board member, loudly threatened to resign, before bowing to the decision. Young Messier, now effectively in charge of running the company, should be formally made its president in June 1996, after the board approves the 1995 results. "We needed someone clean, not someone from inside the company, who might one day be charged with yet another corruption scandal," CGE insiders told the press.

This drew guffaws from the Paris political and business establishment. Young Messier, who has more than once been dubbed the most ambitious Frenchman of the Nineties, used to be in charge of the first big round of privatisations at the Balladur Finance ministry. The bank advising most of these privatisations was Lazard. Barely a few months after the reelection of Francois Mitterrand to the presidency, ending the first two-year cohabitation, Messier was hired by, surprise, surprise, Lazard, with unheard-of privileges, directly as a full partner (associé-gerant) aged 33, with an office significantly located next to the bank's chairman, the billionnaire Michel David-Weill.

His first job was of course to follow the smooth workings of the newly privatised companies, in direct contradiction with French law, which stipulates that civil servants are not allowed to move into private jobs directly related to their former goverment activities.

Next Messieur was sent to New York for a while, to work with the legendary Felix Rohatyn on the multi-billion franc acquisition by Groupe Schneider of Sqare D, an electrical company, snatching the fat success fees from JP Morgan's, the white-shoe Wall Street bank that had initially presented Square D to Schneider. When he came back to Paris, he was the bank's star, and David-Weilll's obvious favourite.

How does young Jean-Marie do it? "He calculates every single move," says an associate. "For instance, he dresses more modestly than your average investment banker, which usually reassures industrialists. His 17th-arrondissement flat is rented, the furniture is dowdy Napoleon III. His wife Antoinette is no socialite, she prefers to care for their three kids. He listens a lot and unlike most members of the French establishment -- to which he belongs both by background (his family once were partners in the aviation firm Messier-Latecoère) and by right as an Inspecteur des Finances, one of the top 5 of his ENA class -- he never shows off. Balladur likes young men who can keep secrets and he called Messier 'as safe as a tumb'. David-Weill, too, likes people who can keep secrets. Messier knows where most Establishment bodies are buried."

REMEMBER this figure next time French farmers are out in the streets burning prefectures and dumping artichauts: according to the highly reliable INSEE (Institut National des Statistiques et Etudes Economiques), the average French farm income went up 11.5% in 1994, the CAP's second year over 4 times current inflation. Meat farmers made 12% more than last year; winegrowers took in a whopping 40% and large cereal and grain growers (usually accused of reaping all the benefit from demonstrations organised by poorer small farmer) 3% only.

© Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 1994.

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