French tycoon Bernard Tapie dies aged 78

·4-min read

Bernard Tapie, the French business magnate, actor and politician whose swashbuckling career earned him millions of fans despite a litany of legal convictions, died aged 78 on Sunday after a four-year fight with stomach cancer.

"Dominique Tapie and his family have the immense sadness to announce the death of her husband and their father, Bernard Tapie, this Sunday," they said in a statement to La Provence newspaper in Marseille, in which Tapie was a majority stakeholder.

His death prompted condolences from politicians across the political spectrum, with President Emmanuel Macron hailing an "ambition, energy and enthusiasm that were a source of inspiration for generations of French people".

"This man, who had a combativeness that could move mountains and take down the moon, never gave up," his office said in a statement.

Dozens of admirers placed flowers outside Tapie's mansion in the posh Saint-Germain neighbourhood in Paris where he died.

"He's what you used to call a prole who succeeded in climbing the entire social ladder at a time when working your way up wasn't so easy," said Ludovic, a 23-year-old who regretted that "the media was beating up on him for 30 years".

Several French TV stations quickly changed their scheduled primetime programming for Sunday to air special reports, documentaries or several of his film and theatre performances.

- 'You have to fight' -

Born in a rough corner of Paris on January 26, 1943, Tapie rose from modest beginnings to become one of France's most successful and high-profile businessmen, buying up and reviving dozens of failing companies and revelling in his wealth with American-style flair.

A huge sports fan, he was the longtime chairman of the Olympique de Marseille football club and bought a cycling team that twice won the Tour de France, anchored by the French legend Bernard Hinault.

He guided Marseille to five successive league triumphs and the 1993 Champions League title. But charges of match-fixing tainted the team's Champions League victory -- the only time a French club has won the trophy.

A large black-and-white portrait of Tapie was erected outside the OM's Velodrame stadium in Marseille on Sunday, with fans gathering at the makeshift memorial.

"He had an incredible destiny, he did it all -- business, politics, football, cycling, and the shenanigans -- I'm a huge fan, even if I can't forget some of his legal problems," said Jean-Michel Nicolas, seated on the terrasse of the OM Cafe in Marseille.

- Rise and fall -

Tapie also found time to act, building on the nightclub singing performances of his youth, taking roles that included a police inspector on a popular TV show.

He also dabbled in politics, becoming urban affairs minister in the Socialist government of Francois Mitterrand in the 1990s -- though only for two months.

Later he was elected as a leftist French and European Parliament MP based in Marseille, a city longtime considered a bastion of the right.

But Tapie's empire collapsed spectacularly in the late 1990s, beginning with the match-fixing trial that saw him serve time in jail.

He was also found guilty in a series of cases for corruption, tax fraud and misuse of corporate assets

But his most controversial prosecution came over his purchase of the German sports brand Adidas in 1990, which he was forced to sell just a few years later to the state-owned bank Credit Lyonnais.

Initially victorious in his claim that he was cheated over the sale price, Tapie was awarded 403 million euros ($470 million at current rates) by an arbitration panel in 2008.

But the payout quickly drew scrutiny for being approved by finance minister Christine Lagarde under then-president Nicolas Sarkozy, a longtime Tapie ally.

A court later found him and five others guilty of fraud and ordered Tapie to repay the money, a decision he appealed.

The ruling in that case is set for Wednesday, but Tapie's death means the court will end the legal proceedings against him.

But many of his companies are still facing liquidation and forced asset sales to repay the arbitration money.

Lagarde, now president of the European Central Bank, was found guilty of negligence in 2016, though she received neither a fine or jail time.

In a book published this year -- "Bernard Tapie: Lessons of Life, Death and Love" -- he called the Adidas sale "the biggest" of all the "stupid mistakes" in his career.

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