Bernard Tapie, French tycoon, actor and politician, dies at 78
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Bernard Tapie, French tycoon, actor and politician, dies at 78
Well-wishers arrive to pay tribute to Bernard Tapie, former owner of the French football club Olympique Marseille (OM) with a banner reading "Rest in peace boss, You'll be forever in our hearts" during a 'chapelle ardente' (open memorial) at The Velodrome Stadium in Marseille, south-eastern France, on October 7, 2021. Bernard Tapie, the French business magnate, actor and politician whose swashbuckling career earned him millions of fans despite a series of legal convictions, died aged 78 on October 3, 2021, after a four-year fight with stomach cancer. NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP.

by Roger Cohen

PARIS.- Bernard Tapie, a swaggering French businessman who lurched throughout his life from wild success to humiliation, knowing everything from high political office to the prison cell, died Oct. 3 in Paris. He was 78.

The cause was cancer, according to a statement by his wife, Dominique Tapie. The announcement appeared in La Provence, a newspaper Tapie owned in the southern French port city of Marseille, where he was beloved due to the extraordinary success he brought its soccer team, Olympique de Marseille, after he bought it in 1986.

“He led a thousand lives,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a message of condolence to the Tapie family, adding that Tapie’s “ambition, energy and enthusiasm were an inspiration for generations of French people.”

Macron’s praise of a man who was embroiled in legal problems for several decades and went to jail for five months in 1997 for his role in a soccer match-fixing scandal was a measure of the fascination exerted by this sometime pop singer, business mogul, actor, sports impresario, TV star and left-wing government minister. Tapie was many things but never less than irrepressible.

His soccer team — OM, as it was known — was a nothing club in dire straits when Tapie took over, but through a mix of acumen and braggadocio, he guided it to victory in the 1993 Champions League, Europe’s most coveted club competition. No other French team had ever won it. The players, courted on his yacht or the private jet he piloted himself, dubbed him “le boss.” He was everywhere — on the pitch, in the dressing rooms — and they loved him.

It was typical of Tapie that within two years of a triumph that politicians seized on as symbolizing “a winning France,” he was convicted of trying to bribe a Valenciennes player to throw a match. Sentenced to two years in prison, he served 165 days.

OM fans never cared. “He will leave a great void in the hearts of the people of Marseille,” the club tweeted on his death.

For Tapie, nothing was ever more than a superable setback. He had the gift of the gab and soulful dark eyes that somehow made all the words that gushed from him more credible. In a country where power tends to be concentrated among the graduates of its elite schools, Tapie, the loud rags-to-riches self-made man, held an enduring appeal.

Bernard Tapie was born Jan. 26, 1943, in Paris into a working-class family — his father was a milling-machine operator and his mother a caregiver — and he had to fight his way out of the city’s tough northern suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis. The book he would write in 1986 was called “Winning” for a reason.

He started out as a singer with singles including “I No Longer Believe in Girls” and “Quick, a Drink” and dabbled in motor racing only to find himself in a coma after a crash, before turning to business in 1967 with a small company that sold televisions in eastern Paris.

A domestic appliances venture followed, then something called “Heart Assistance” that was supposed to provide instant help to people with heart problems through a portable gadget that would summon an ambulance at the press of a button.

Tapie was convicted in 1981 for fraudulent advertising; the company had two ambulances, maybe, when it declared it had five.

At about the same time, Tapie was ordered by a French court to return four chateaus that he had acquired for a song from the fallen self-proclaimed emperor of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, by persuading him — falsely — that they were to be seized by French authorities.

Moving at speed in his personal and professional life — he had two children by a brief first marriage — Tapie specialized in rescuing and reselling troubled companies, from battery to bicycle manufacturers. He gradually built a fortune. The summit of his business career came in 1990 with the purchase of Adidas, a sporting goods company.

As in many of his business adventures, however, Adidas would come to haunt Tapie. A long legal saga involving the company ensued, including the sale of his majority stake to Credit Lyonnais in 1992, a lawsuit brought by Tapie against the bank alleging it had underpaid for the company, a payment to Tapie of $449 million awarded in 2008 and an order on appeal to repay that sum in 2017. The saga remained unresolved at the time of his death.

If anything, these judicial travails eventually brought Tapie sympathy, especially after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2017.

In addition to his wife, Tapie is survived by the two children from his first marriage, Nathalie and Stéphane; two children with his present wife, Laurent and Sophie; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

Even in poor health, Tapie continued to give interviews. He always had a gift for communication, grasping before his time that in the modern era, it counted as much as anything. Like former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and, later, former U.S. President Donald Trump, he seized on television to cement his notoriety. He had his own television show called “Ambitions” in the mid-1980s. Through it, he did a lot to make words such as “entrepreneurship” and “success” less suspect in a France always suspicious of the rich, self-made or not.

These gifts drew him to President François Mitterrand, who asked to meet Tapie in 1987 and saw in him a showman who could be an effective communicator for the left, using simple, raw language. A debate in 1989 between Tapie and hard-right anti-immigrant leader Jean-Marie Le Pen remains legendary for Tapie’s demolition of his opponent.

Addressing a meeting of Le Pen’s National Front party in 1992, Tapie, who had been elected to parliament as a representative from Marseille in 1989, postulated the idea of seizing immigrants, piling them into a boat and sinking the boat off the coast of France. There was wild applause, according to an account by writer André Bercoff.

Tapie deadpanned: “I made no mistake about you. I just spoke of a massacre, and you applauded. Tomorrow, take a look at yourselves in the mirror while you shave or put on makeup and just throw up.”

Mitterrand made Tapie minister for town planning in 1992, but he had to resign after 52 days as a result of yet another legal problem. The case was resolved in Tapie’s favor, and he returned to the government in 1993, but the defeat of the left that year ended his ministerial career.

There was still time for further ventures, including Tapie’s acquisition of the La Provence newspaper. His acting career revived with a Paris theater performance in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in the mid-1990s. Close to former President Nicolas Sarkozy, he became a frequent visitor to the Élysée Palace between 2007 and 2012. His opinions — on business and the affairs of the world — were sought after and reported on, even in his last years.

“For the French to love you again, it suffices to get sick,” Tapie said. The national mourning and considerable adulation at his death seemed to prove him right.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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