French ex-con still ‘coming up from ashes’ at 70

Paris letter: Businessman Bernard Tapie says the system is out to humiliate him

French businessman Bernard Tapie claims he was the victim of a plot to discredit Nicolas Sarkozy. Photograph: Fred Dufour/Reuters

French businessman Bernard Tapie claims he was the victim of a plot to discredit Nicolas Sarkozy. Photograph: Fred Dufour/Reuters


A few nights ago, I was surprised to hear an 82-year-old grandmother from the Parisian grande bourgeoise defending Bernard Tapie at a family dinner. “He’s charming, non? He’s so amusing!”

Tapie (70) had just spent 96 hours in the prison infirmary on the Île de la Cité, being questioned by the police’s finance brigade. At the end of his forced stay, he was placed under investigation – a judiciary nuance away from being formally charged – for “fraud in an organised group”.

Tapie’s entourage described the “degrading conditions” endured by the multimillionaire businessman, politician, actor and ex-convict during his detention. The justice system, they said, was determined to “humiliate” a man who had succeeded.

Tapie says the state-owned Crédit Lyonnais bank “stole” hundreds of millions from him when it sold the Adidas sporting goods company on his behalf in the 1990s. He and at least four others are suspected of orchestrating a phoney legal arbitration that resulted in €403 million in taxpayers’ money being paid to Tapie in 2008.

For half an hour on prime time Monday night television, the fleshy-faced, gravel- voiced Tapie sparred with France 2 presenter David Pujadas. He was the victim of a plot to discredit Nicolas Sarkozy, Tapie said. Tapie visited Sarkozy 22 times in the Élysée Palace between 2007 and 2009. But he swore he never once mentioned his Crédit Lyonnais problem.

Tapie admitted it was “unthinkable that [Sarkozy] had not given his green light” to the arbitration. There was a difference between giving the go-ahead and manipulating the process, he asserted.

Holding company
The socialist government has filed a lawsuit to reverse the arbitration. If it wins, Tapie will have to give back the €403 million, much of which he has stashed in a holding company in Brussels. He owns a private jet, yacht and at least four luxury properties in France. On television, he volunteered all his wealth as a security deposit in the state’s case against him.

Tapie made his fortune by buying up bankrupt companies, then renegotiating their debts. He dabbled in politics, serving as minister of urban affairs under François Mitterrand, and twice as a deputy in the national assembly. His politics were rooted in opportunism, not conviction.

Mitterrand liked Tapie’s working-class aura; the son of a welder and the grandson of a railway worker, Tapie never lost the accent of the north Paris banlieue. Sarkozy saw Tapie as a kindred spirit; a rebellious outsider who succeeded. As mayor of Neuilly in the 1990s, Sarkozy brushed off warnings about Tapie’s character, saying, “He makes me laugh, and his life is a novel!”

The Tapie affair is excruciatingly embarrassing – and career-threatening – for IMF director Christine Lagarde, who as finance minister authorised the arbitration. “Do I look like the sort of person who would be buddies with Bernard Tapie?” the patrician-looking Lagarde famously asked.

Under questioning by the Court of Justice of the Republic on May 23rd, Lagarde recounted how Tapie pestered the finance ministry with phone calls. “I finally decided to talk to him myself, to ask him to stop calling my office, and to tell him that we had nothing to say to one another,” Lagarde said. “I knew that he practised entrisme systematically.”

Tapie persuaded former president Jacques Chirac to involve the king of Morocco in his business problems there. When Sarkozy was minister of the budget in the early 1990s, Tapie obtained a moratorium on his taxes. “Bernard Tapie thinks that everything in life can be obtained by seduction, threat or money, or all three at the same time,” says Thomas Legrand, political editorialist for France Inter radio. When Tapie’s daughter was a contestant on a TV song contest earlier this year, Tapie rang journalists to ask them, “You wouldn’t have a trick to help my daughter win?”

In the 1990s, Tapie served 10 months in prison for fixing a football match involving the Olympique de Marseille club, which he owned. “Every time he’s left for dead, he comes up from the ashes, even at age 70,” says André Bercoff, Tapie’s former ghostwriter and biographer.

Tapie accuses the press of persecuting him. “Vous vous foutez de ma gueule” – a rude way of saying, “You’re making fun of me” – he repeatedly told Pujadas. “Don’t believe what the press says,” he told viewers; a strange defence for a man who has long invested in print and television media. Last December, Tapie bought a €25 million share in La Provence, Nice-Matin and Corse-Matin newspapers, prompting speculation he will stand for mayor of Marseilles next year – if he’s not in jail.

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