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Postscript : Troubled Tycoon : Once he was France’s ‘Zorro of business.’ Now Bernard Tapie is bankrupt, accused of bribery, tax evasion and loan defaults.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bernard Tapie was the man the French loved to love and it was easy to see why. Handsome, energetic and supremely self-confident, he had the air of a winner.

A former car salesman from a working-class family, Tapie had built up a multimillion-dollar fortune before he was 40 by buying sick companies and turning them over at a profit. Then he took a lackluster soccer club in this rough-edged Mediterranean port city and led it to French and European glory.

In politics too the tycoon was a star. He ran for the French National Assembly as a left-wing novice and won, becoming a favorite of youth, a protege of President Francois Mitterrand and a minister in the last Socialist-run government.

As recently as a year ago, this 52-year-old millionaire with the common touch was being mentioned seriously as a presidential candidate. And he was a shoo-in to become the next mayor of Marseilles.

But the fall of the man papers here called a “Zorro of business” has been almost as spectacular as his rise. In the past year, Tapie has been charged with evading $13.5 million in French taxes, sued by his banker for repayment of a $240 million loan and declared bankrupt by a French court.

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His Paris mansion, antique furniture and yacht have been confiscated. French soccer officials have booted him out of the sport and demoted his former team to the second division.

Yet the most devastating blows were delivered in recent days, and even Tapie’s many supporters fear that their hero’s political career may be over.

Last Friday, the Court of Appeal in Paris upheld a bankruptcy order on Tapie’s empire, which means, under French law, that he must resign his seats in the French Assembly and the European Parliament. He also is barred from holding any elective office for five years.

His reputation might have survived that blow, if only because it was easy for many in France to write off Tapie’s financial woes as an attempt, as he contended, by a conservative government to destroy a left-wing opposition politician’s career.

But Tapie’s image had suffered permanent damage in another courtroom, in northern France, a few days earlier when his defense against charges that he bribed soccer opponents to throw a game in 1993 collapsed.

The muscular, jut-jawed Tapie entered the trial with all the pugnacity of a prizefighter. But he left subdued, bruised and beaten, his reputation in tatters. A verdict isn’t due until next month, but experts say conviction seems certain. “If I have to go to prison,” Tapie told reporters, “I will. I’m not going to kill myself over it.”

Bernard Tapie was born into a family of modest means in Paris. His father repaired furnaces and his mother was a nurse. He studied electrical engineering in college, cut a few albums singing such songs as “The Green Berets,” and went into sales, peddling television sets and cars. When he was 26, he started his own company, Groupe Bernard Tapie.

Tapie’s specialty was taking over a failing company and then laying off workers, selling assets and tightening up the management before selling it. His group has run companies involved in health foods, tennis rackets and bathroom scales. In 1990, he made headlines when he bought Adidas, the giant German sporting goods maker. But financial problems later forced him to sell.

After the heyday of corporate takeovers in the 1980s, Tapie found it more difficult to succeed in the austere 1990s. He was unable to make payments on his bank loans. His own managers accused him of diverting profits for his political campaigns. And, prosecutors contend, he committed “grave and intentional fiscal infractions” on his tax returns.

But, to many in France, the cascade of financial accusations against Tapie had the appearance of state harassment. His personal popularity continued to soar, especially among women and youth.

Nowhere was he more popular than in Marseilles, his adopted home, where he came, at the personal invitation of the mayor, to buy the struggling Olympic Marseilles soccer team in 1986.

Marseilles also is a port city that suffers a lack of respect in the rest of France. And Tapie approached this city’s soccer team with brash promises of a turnaround. He spoke of a European Cup championship, something never achieved by a French soccer club.

“Marseilles is not a very intellectual community,” explained Christian Bruschi, a lawyer here. “There is the cult of the chief. Power and promises are respected. It’s a kind of Caesar-ism. And Tapie is completely that. He’s a chief.”

Soccer fans in Marseilles were skeptical, but they quickly became converts. By investing heavily in the soccer club, and recruiting the best players, Tapie saw the club race to five consecutive French championships. In 1993, the team defeated AC Milan for the European Cup.

Soon after taking over the team, Tapie ran for National Assembly on his populist, leftist platform.

He won a national following for getting the best of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the home-grown leader of French extreme right wing, in a televised debate. Le Pen was left shaking with rage when Tapie told him he was “a big mouth who should be kicked in the butt.”

But, within weeks, the first serious darts were tossed at what has been called Tapie’s “stainless steel” veneer. It emerged that, before the European championships, the manager of Tapie’s team had bribed players for the Valenciennes team to throw a match.

Tapie was charged with bribery and interfering with witnesses during the investigation. He and his manager denied the charges, but the soccer league forced Tapie to leave the sport last year.

As Tapie awaited his trial on those charges, his popularity was reinforced with a strong showing in the European Parliament elections last June. His Radical Energy party ticket drew 12%, suggesting it could one day mount a serious challenge to the authority of the French Socialist Party on the left. Even Tapie’s battles with the tax authorities and bankers seemed to gild his reputation as an anti-Establishment figure.

Credit Lyonnais, the state-run bank, later foreclosed on his loans, seizing his four-masted schooner, Phocea. One step ahead of the bank, Tapie snuck some of his belongings out of his $13-million Paris mansion, telling reporters that his wife “didn’t want her things to be taken.” Authorities seized the 18th-Century building, and it was sold at auction.

When the soccer bribery trial opened last month, Tapie was prepared to make a valiant defense. He appeared regularly on television, portraying himself as an innocent victim of soccer owners who had become jealous of his success.

But the trial was a painful thing for Tapie supporters to watch. It seemed to prove Tapie’s own, often-quoted axiom: “Strange things happen in soccer.”

On the first day, the former manager of Tapie’s team admitted he had offered the bribes and said it was under Tapie’s order. Blustering that the man must be mentally ill, Tapie stormed out of court.

Then, one of Tapie’s alibis dissolved. Prosecutors contended that Tapie had offered the Valenciennes coach money to change his story. Impossible, said Tapie, because he was in Paris at the time with his friend, Jacques Mellick, a National Assembly member. And Mellick agreed.

But the alibi evaporated when Mellick’s former assistant broke down on the stand, saying she had been forced to lie to support her boss’ story. A few days later, Mellick meekly changed his story.

Tapie tried a comeback, but even that backfired. On television, he said that everyone in the trial, himself included, had lied or, at least, “told their own versions of the truth.”

Questioned the next day in court about that statement, Tapie replied: “I have lied in good faith.”

Said the judge: “You could have that phrase studied in a philosophy textbook.”

A verdict is expected next month. But many in France who sadly watched the spectacle believe the verdict on Bernard Tapie already is in.


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