Condemnations of Jean-Marie Messier's decision to sack Pierre Lescure were coming from as far away as Hollywood yesterday, with Cannes jury president David Lynch calling the move scandalous.
It is the second time in as many months that Messier has sparked a political furore (the first being when he publicly stated that the French prized 'exception culturelle', was soon to be obsolete).
Indeed, the political impact of Lescure's forced ousting by Messier has been such that French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, currently running for the French presidential mandate, has deemed the subject serious enough to justify an official press release stating that Vivendi Universal must respect Canal Plus' financial and editorial independence.
This, indeed, was one of the conditions for the go-ahead of the Vivendi/Canal Plus/Seagram merger by the French audiovisual watchdog Conseil Superieur de l'Audiovisuel (CSA).
In December 2000, Vivendi Universal signed a charter which guaranteed exactly that issue, and also clearly stated that the channel's broadcasting license could be terminated in the case of 'substantial modifications in Canal Plus shareholding structure or management '.
CSA's head Dominique Baudis has now called a meeting with Messier and Lescure in order to assess the situation.
Meanwhile the head of French film and television support body CNC (Centre National de la Cinematographie), called Lescure's departure as 'a major trauma'.
The French film industry has been up in arms since Tuesday, with literally hundreds of producers, distributors, film-makers and actors signing a letter which was used as a massive ad in French daily newspaper Le Monde the same afternoon.
Says a film producer : " What we hope is that, whatever happens next, the blow dealt to Canal Plus will bring about new negotiations which will lead to a tightening of the links that the pay-TV channel had woven with us over the years, and that had been loosened lately."
French film industry unions and lobbies spoke with one voice, stressing that Lescure's departure 'marked the end of an era', underlining the 'extraordinary development of a company with which all sectors of the film industry have developed links through investment agreements'.
Tuesday was also Bastille Day at Canal Plus where the pay channel personnel invaded the set of live access show Nulle Part Ailleurs, which is broadcast unscrambled and can be seen by anybody with a TV set without a decoder. Former and current Canal Plus presenters such as Eurotrash's Antoine de Caunes and Spanish writer and Canal board member Jorge Semprun voiced their protest.
Needless to say, the story has made the front page of all of the French daily newspapers, including four full pages in Liberation, the newspaper reporting among others, that Lescure's replacement Xavier Couture, currently director of broadcasting at private terrestrial channel TF1, was not Jean-Marie Messier's first choice, and that the latter would have preferred the two top executives at the other private channel, M6, Nicolas de Tavernost and Jean Drucker (respectively Chairman of the channel's executive board and chairman of its supervisory board). Neither accepted, and Messier had to be content with a 'second fiddle'.
"The replacement of Pierre Lescure by Xavier Couture is a management decision I have made alone and which will not be submitted to a vote by Canal Plus' supervisory board nor Vivendi Universal's board." Messier said yesterday. It is easy to guess that Vivendi's chairman will have to face more than a few perfunctory board meetings in the near future, although Vivendi's chairman declared on Tuesday on public broadcaster France 2, he would not step down and that he was confident he would receive support from the Vivendi Universal board.