Obituary: Bernard Tapie, a colorful and controversial French businessman
IN SPRING from 1985, Bernard Tapie appears in a new French television program, “The game of truth”. It typically featured artists such as Alain Delon and Elton John; Mr. Tapie was the first businessman to attend. A painful austerity plan weighed on the economy. On the show, he received calls from factory owners who had lost their business, from workers made redundant. Neither of them could really believe what had happened. Firm, but trying to be fair, he listened intently before answering. And then it’s her turn to lay bare her soul, for intimate revelation is what “The Game of Truth” really was.
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Going up on stage, he swayed gently to the beat. His three-piece was more of a suit than a suit: the jacket a little square, the plum square sticking out of his pocket like a tongue in search of a kiss. His tie shone pearly pink, and his flowing brown hair shone brighter than Julio Iglesias’s. He closed his eyes and stretched out an arm. “I would have liked to be an artist,” he crooned. “To be able to do my number …” Standing in front of a double white staircase lit by roses which went up to who knows where, he seemed to be wearing gloss.
Born in 1943 under the German occupation, he grew up with his younger brother in an apartment with small paltry windows, the top of a small two-story house in the Parisian suburbs. Not as hard-working as the neighboring Courneuve, nor as steeped in history as Drancy in the south, where the Jews of France were gathered before being deported to extermination camps in Germany and Poland, Le Bourget housed the first civilian airport of France. Like many newly prosperous travelers who passed without looking up on their way to the city, from an early age, he wanted to get out. In a school photo, pals drape an arm around his shoulders as he puffs his chest with attitude.
To some he was Robin Hood in a blazer, to others an Antichrist in short pants. A born leader, he was often in trouble. Later, he will boast of having an engineering degree, but he barely finished high school. He wanted to be Jean Gabin, star of the Moulin Rouge and in love with Marlène Dietrich. This suburban kid, the boy on the wrong side of the slopes, devoted his energy to blackmailing concerts in clubs while selling TVs on the side. Her first single, “I don’t believe girls anymore” (I don’t believe girls anymore), did pretty well, but the next two were a flop.
What he was good at, he found, was making do and making money. In his twenties, he had his first tax audit, his first bankruptcy (of a small business that sold hi-fi and household appliances) and his first run-in with the authorities (driving an untaxed Lamborghini). Starting with two companies that made paper, he embarked on the buyout of struggling businesses, sometimes for as little as a franc, stripping assets and letting them melt or topple and be reborn. He even starred in a TV ad for one of his companies, a battery maker called Wonder. In the clip, he moves like a tornado around an office. “What makes Tapie continue?” Asks the slogan. “Me? I’m running on Wonder! In the last few seconds, an assistant pulls out his batteries and he collapses. As he hits the ground, he winks.
Success brought him to the attention of bankers, politicians and opportunists. Sport, along with television, was the new bond of power, not only in France but wherever young men and women thirsted for a different kind of hero. Backed by his bank, Crédit Lyonnais, which belongs to the State, he bought Adidas, a sports shoe brand with a great history, but which has known difficult times. In less than two years, he had started to change course. He restored a long and elegant sailboat and in 1988 he made the fastest monohull crossing in the Atlantic. The Tour de France cycling race has been won twice by a team sponsored by his company, La Vie Claire, a chain of stores selling health products. At the same time, the Olympique de Marseille (OM), his football club, launched his candidacy to win the French championship four years in a row. In 1993, during the second attempt, OM beat the favorites, THAT Milan, 1-0 in a surprising final, the first time a French team has won the European Champions League. As he stumbled on the ground, he wiped away his tears.
Marseille is a city of immigrants. As his reputation grows among Marseillais, it is inevitable that he will start to interest the most powerful politicians in the country. Gaston Defferre, the mayor of Marseille, was a close friend of Socialist President François Mitterrand. When the two men, the intellectual president and the performer-capitalist, first met for lunch, they chatted for nearly four hours. He persuaded him to run for office. His brave attack in a televised debate (or elsewhere) against the leader of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, proved his political sense.
The appointment of Minister of Urban Affairs to respond to the discomfort in poor areas with high unemployment was inspired. Still the interpreter, he would go to the suburb, and yelling at those who watched him from behind closed windows. “Come down. And I’ll tell you what the plan is.
Mitterrand was impressed with his energy. But by weakening, physically and politically, the old president was no longer able to protect him. Having seen how a working-class foreigner could confuse the established French system of politics and favoritism, many on the left and right were happy to see him smashed, first on charges of corruption and match-fixing in football. , then by others more than 20 years of litigation with the Crédit Lyonnais on the sale of its shares in Adidas, and by the collapse of a large part of its commercial empire. He even went to jail.
Marina Zenovich, who spent three years following him for his documentary “Who Is Bernard Tapie? And he fell from grace like OJ Simpson. The day of his death, his eldest son, Stéphane, who knew him better than anyone, posted on Instagram a photo of the two of them, microphone in hand, jamming together on stage: “Goodbye my Phoenix”.■
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the title “Coeur de lion”