by John Lichfield
Monday, 4
October 2021
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15:19

Bernard Tapie: a most un-French billionaire

The disgraced Marseille public figure lived multiple lives and told multiple lies
by John Lichfield
Bernard Tapie had an open relationship with the truth. Credit: Getty

In 1989, French billionaire Bernard Tapie took on Jean-Marie Le Pen in a one-in-one TV debate and was widely declared to have won. He clearly relished the result: a year later, after being elected deputy for a Marseille constituency, he turned up at a public meeting of Le Pen’s party in Orange in the Rhône valley.

“All the immigrants should be put in boats and taken home,” he told the meeting, to surprised but delighted cheers.

“Just before they get there the boats should be blown up to make sure that they don’t come back.” Even louder cheers.

“There you are,” said Tapie. “I was right all along. You Lepennists are b******s.”

Tapie, who died peacefully yesterday at 78, was a man of multiple lives and multiple lies, a genial crook, who was also the victim of a doubtful (to say the least) business coup by the then state-owned bank Crédit Lyonnais in 1994.

Failed pop-singer, small businessman, would-be racing driver, big businessman, movie actor, TV pundit, radio personality, politician, football-club owner, jail-bird, permanent litigant — Tapie’s life was extraordinarily, and some might suggest as being extraordinarily un-French. He rose from a blue-collar family in the Paris suburbs to become one of the most successful businessmen in France and, briefly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a politician spoken of as a future Socialist president of the Republic.

Tapie had something of Donald Trump — the loud mouth, the blunt, everyday language, the instinct for how people at the bottom saw the people at the top. Unlike Trump, he was a populist anti-populist, brought into politics by President François Mitterrand as the antidote to the rising far-Right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

He is best remembered outside France as the man who went to jail for bribing footballers in 1993.

As a result, his club, Olympique Marseille, was stripped of its title as French champions that year — but not the European title — a decision that OM fans and French football as a whole still prefer to ignore. He remained a hero in Marseille to the end of his life — despite the fact that he brought the club and city into disrepute and that, worse still, he was born in Paris.

Within a couple of years, the Olympique Marseille bribery scandal had destroyed Tapie’s political career. OM, built into a great team by Tapie’s personality and money, had reached the European Cup Final. To make sure they had an easy run in a preceding French league match, Tapie organised the bribery of two players in the opposing team, Valenciennes.

OM won the European final but the title was later cancelled. Tapie denied all wrong-doing but was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail.

He had earlier bought the failing sportswear giant Adidas and started to turn it around. In 1994, Crédit Lyonnais, foreclosed on his debts and sold the business for an enormous profit. Litigation about this coup continued for the next 24 years, dominating the rest of Tapie’s life.

There are two ways (at least) to look back on the life of Bernard Tapie. Some would say that he was the man who might have reconciled France’s internal differences — a flawed genius. Other would say that he was a lovable charlatan. In the end, Tapie ruined his own achievements. He made entrepreneurship exciting — unusually for France — and then gave it a bad name. He stumbled on a populist antidote to populism but carelessly threw it away.

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