Bernard Tapie: the man with a thousand lives

Bernard Tapie, who has died aged 78, was a colourful French entrepreneur, star of screen and stage, politician, sports icon, press baron and convicted felon. It was a roller-coaster life.

Bernard Tapie
(Image credit: © FRED DUFOUR/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Famed for his tan and bouffant hair, Bernard Tapie, who has died aged 78, was by far France’s most glamorous business tycoon: admired even by detractors for his derring-do. “Half Count of Monte Cristo, half Jean Valjean” (hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables), he “wrote his own legend”, says Le Figaro. “No one could dictate his conduct,” and his career “mirrored the contradictions and fractures in France’s own history”. For Le Monde, Tapie was simply the man “with a thousand lives”.

Shrewd entrepreneur, star of screen and stage, politician, sports icon, press baron… “the elephant in the eulogies” following Tapie’s death, says The Guardian, “was his recurring relationship with French justice” – notably convictions for football match-fixing and tax fraud that saw him jailed for several months in the mid-1990s. But, as he later admitted, “the biggest” of all the “stupid mistakes” was the “Adidas controversy” – a complex legal battle that began in 1993, became a national obsession and “poisoned the last decades” of his life.

The money years

Tapie had “a gift for self-promotion and not a little charm”, says the Financial Times. He made his post-prison comeback as an actor, playing a police inspector in the popular TV series Valence and getting rave reviews for his theatre debut as the lead in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Despite his leftish political leanings, he became a symbol of what the French call “les années fric” (the money years) – widely admired for pulling himself out of a poor childhood to become one of the country’s richest men.

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Born in 1943, Tapie grew up poor but “happy” in a working-class suburb of Paris. On leaving school he sold TVs, sang in Paris clubs and dreamed of becoming a pop star or a racing driver, says The Guardian. But he discovered an equal talent for business and, by the time he was 30, had made a fortune acquiring and turning round bankrupt companies. Feted through the 1980s, Tapie spent millions on status symbols that indulged his love of sport, says the Daily Mail. He was an idolised club president of the football club Olympic Marseille from 1986 to 1994 and his cycling team won two Tours de France.

On the back of that success, Tapie went into politics, says the FT. His “fearless takedown” of the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1989 caught the eye of President François Mitterrand, who made him a minister. Riding high, Tapie was meanwhile staging “his greatest business coup” – revitalising the German sportswear giant Adidas, which he acquired in 1990. It became “his biggest nightmare”. In 1993, Tapie sold out to Crédit Lyonnais to avoid a political conflict of interest. When the part-state-owned bank then flipped the company for double the price, he sued.

“What have I not done?”

It was the start of a legal roller-coaster that would see him triumph in 2008, when awarded €403m in damages from public funds (causing an outcry) – and then crash in 2015 when that decision was reversed and he was ordered to pay the money back – “I am ruined. Ruined.” – amid allegations of fraud. Tapie was acquitted of that in 2019, but the case continues to reverberate around the French establishment.

One of Tapie’s most inspiring attributes, says The Guardian, was his resilience. When knocked down, he got up again. “He took the blows and rolled with the criticism.” Months before his death he was badly beaten up during a violent burglary at his manor house near Paris. He accepted that, and the cancer that eventually killed him, philosophically. “What have I not done?” he said in a 2017 interview. “I can’t say I haven’t been spoiled rotten by life.”

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.