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Head of French Media Giant Steps Down

Before Messier took over in 1994, Vivendi was a 141-year-old French water and sewage company called Compagnie Generale des Eaux — the General Water Company. But after a name change in 1998 and a multibillion-dollar purchasing spree, Vivendi became an unlikely competitor in the media acquisition wars of the late 1990s.

According to analysts, Vivendi’s key move came in 2000 with its $30 billion purchase of Seagram’s Universal. With holdings including Universal Studios, Universal Music Group, Houghton Mifflin publishers and USA Networks television, the re-christened Vivendi Universal currently stands as the world’s second-largest media conglomerate — behind the U.S.-based AOL Time Warner.

But fiscal woes plagued the company in recent years. Vivendi Universal’s debt has grown to some $30 billion and its stock price has sank more than 60 percent this year.

The company’s faltering finances undermined Messier’s support among shareholders, finally leading to calls for his removal from the Bronfman family, Seagram’s former owners and Vivendi Universal’s largest shareholders, The New York Times reported.

With rumors of a possible breakup of the company swirling, the 45-year-old Messier told the French newspaper Le Figaro his leaving was part of an attempt to keep Vivendi Universal together.

“I hear, I see the predators prowling, the advisers putting together breakup plans,” Messier said. “My most earnest hope is that the board of directors, as well as the various authorities concerned, don’t wreck this achievement.”

Another French daily, Le Monde, reported Tuesday that Vivendi allegedly attempted to illegally inflate its 2001 account statements by 1.5 billion euros — some $1.47 billion — by overstating its profits on the sale of its stake in BSkyB, a British pay television company.

Company spokesmen have had no comment on that report.

A spokeswoman told The Washington Post Vivendi Universal’s 14-member board of directors will meet in Paris Wednesday to discuss the situation, and Alain Delrieu, a company spokesman, told the Associated Press it’s likely the group will accept Messier’s resignation.

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