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The Rise and Fall of Bernard Tapie
What can we learn from France's most controversial businessman?
Bernard Tapie is certainly one of the most fascinating individuals I have ever heard of. He was a French businessman who became remarkably successful in acquiring bankrupt companies, but he wasn't limited to that, he was also famous as a singer, comedian, politician, TV host, soccer club manager, and for breaking the world record for crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Aside from the versatility of his accomplishments, a large part of his reputation may also lie in his involvement in a number of scandals with the judicial authorities. Recently, Netflix released a TV show about his controversial life – which is quite good from a French speaker's perspective. However, it is not a historically accurate representation of his journey, but rather a mixture of fact and fiction. Someone familiar with the factual narrative might conclude that the entire script could have been written by an earlier generation of language models. After watching the show, I was eager to learn more about the details and transcribe them into an article about a man relentlessly driven by disproportionately ambitious goals, who could have become president of France, but whose strengths turned against him and contributed to his downfall.
Disclaimer: The rest of this article may be a spoiler if you plan to watch the Netflix TV series.
In his early life, Bernard Tapie wasn't a good student, he didn't finish high school or attend university, and instead, started a career as a singer under the stage name Tapy. Several disks were recorded, but none of them resulted in commercial success. He switched jobs to become a salesman but abruptly quit after only three months. Then he started again as a racing driver, but following a car accident, he decided to resign from pursuing this career. After that, he sold televisions in door-to-door sales, and in 1966 he founded his first company specializing in home equipment, which went bankrupt after a few years. He started a second company focused on wholesale for works councils, which he successfully resold. In 1974, he tried to launch a subscription-based business aimed at people at risk of heart disease who could benefit from an automatic alert system to call an ambulance. The project was abandoned after several complaints and ended in a one-year suspended prison sentence for misleading advertising.
It wasn't until the early eighties, when he became interested in buying bankrupt companies for a song, that he began to record tangible successes. In 1980, he acquired La Vie Claire for one franc and sold it to Distriborg for 10 million francs. In 1981, he bought Terraillon for a symbolic franc and sold it to Hibernia Capital Partners for 33 million francs. He then bought Look Cycle in 1983 for a symbolic franc and sold it in 1988 for 260 million francs to the owner of the Swiss watch company Ebel. The industrial giant Wonder was bought by Tapie in 1984 for 30 million francs and sold in 1988 to the American company Ralston for 470 million francs. The sportswear brand Adidas was bought by Tapie in 1990 with a loan of 1.6 billion francs. It was later sold to Robert Louis Dreyfus for 10 billion euros (~65 billion francs). Perhaps one of his most impressive achievements was the 1986 purchase, for a symbolic franc, of the Olympique de Marseille (OM) soccer team, which was ranked fifteenth in the French league and had not won a title since 1976. Under Tapie's leadership, the team won four consecutive French championships from 1989 to 1992 and the 1993 Champions League, the only one ever won by a French football club. After a successful track record of rescuing bankrupt companies, he continued his career by embracing a variety of roles such as hosting his television show, acting, singing, and in the same vein, entered politics where he won two consecutive elections as a member of parliament and eventually served as minister for the city.
Bernard Tapie's consistent winning streak cannot be explained simply as a matter of luck, and could more realistically be attributed to an extraordinary charisma combined with an extremely low risk aversion. But his legendary reputation for winning everywhere is merely a polished facet of the story. There is a darker side, in which many of his successes were systematically intertwined with scandals involving misleading practices, embezzlement, misuse of assets, and corruption. Tapie's ways of solving problems were seemingly associated with circumventing the law, a habit that has dragged him into many judicial affairs that have prosecuted him throughout most of his existence. As many of his affairs are substantially complex, they would deserve a dedicated article, but perhaps the most important one to remember is a financial dispute with the French bank Crédit Lyonnais, concerning the arbitration over the sale of his largest acquisition, Adidas. A never-ending legal battle in which the bank was initially sentenced to pay him 400 million euros, but after the case was reopened, the sentence was overturned and he had to pay back the same amount. The case would last twenty years until his death in 2021 from his advanced cancer, which he had nicknamed “Crédit Lyonnais”.
Bernard Tapie's potential for climbing the social ladder seemed limitless, but his escalation to power was eventually capped by the French justice system, and unironically, would have been on steroids if it had been implemented in a country where bribery was commonplace. At the time, his ambitious goal of becoming French president wasn't delusional, as his popularity skyrocketed while the severity of the scandals he was involved in was kept below an acceptable threshold. A scenario that was jeopardized by his excessive willingness to never make any concessions, notably when he managed his soccer team and was later convicted in a match-fixing scandal for bribing a minor league team just before a Champions League final because he wouldn't allow his team to lose a single game – even if it was in a minor league championship. This affair subsequently cost him his eligibility for the presidency and landed him in jail for six months. The prosecutor who sentenced him later admitted the reasons behind the decision: “If it hadn't been for Bernard Tapie, he wouldn't have gone to prison for this affair. The facts didn't deserve it. He paid for other reasons”.
The story of Bernard Tapie is paradoxical, to put it mildly. He made decisions that were both brilliant and irrational, or at least difficult to justify in the eyes of others. His unwavering sense of purpose has placed him among the 400 fortunes of France and, conversely, proved to be a double-edged sword when, a few years later, he left his wife with a debt of 642 million euros. But the point that people tend to ignore is that he wasn't a dishonest person – following the premise that he was aware of wrongdoing. According to the testimony of those close to him, and given his background, it would suggest that he was a man of integrity with strong values. Rather, his moral views were based on a skewed sense of logic. His internal narrative was that of a man from the lower class who considered himself entitled to a position of power. He sometimes thought of himself as a modern Robin Hood, a view where the bourgeoisie was less legitimate to hold a position of privilege, and therefore playing by his rules was a justified means of balancing that effect. And the fact that he considered himself to be legitimate might have made him more credible. Despite the many controversies, the cult of Bernard Tapie lives on through a story of its own. A story in which one could pursue an infinite number of lives, a story in which success is a matter of audacity rather than specialization, a story that is at odds with the modern world. His journey may be more akin to anecdotal evidence than a general case study, but it nevertheless remains an inspirational one.