Amid French press reports that his own future is at risk, Vivendi Universal chairman Jean-Marie Messier has announced that Pierre Lescure, head of the company's pay-TV group Canal Plus, is stepping down from his post.

Lescure is to be replaced by the fifty year-old Xavier Couture, who until now has been a top executive at private, free-TV broadcaster TF1.

Speaking at a press conference today (April 16), Messier said that he had decided to replace Lescure, who having refused a proposal to stay on as chairman of the company's supervisory board, had to resign.

The move follows last week's resignation of Canal Plus group's second-in-command Denis Olivennes (see ScreenDaily), whose replacement is seen as the latest in a series of clashes between Messier and Lescure over Vivendi's strategy regarding Canal Plus.

Messier's decision could not come at a worse time for him. On the same day, French newspaper Le Monde revealed that influential businessman Claude Bebear, chairman of the supervisory board of insurance group AXA, was determined to convince several of Vivendi's shareholders to replace Messier, or at least reduce his leadership.

The group shares have taken a battering recently, plunging 37% since the beginning of the year due to market concerns over overspending and loss of confidence in Messier's strategy for the group, and are down by some 70% over the past couple of years.

Apart from internal financial considerations, Messier's strategy for Canal Plus has been controversial ever since the merger with Universal. Following Olivennes' resignation, various French film and television industry unions have also questioned his leadership, especially regarding Canal Plus' future status as a substantial backer of French film production and distribution.

In addition, French economy and finance minister Laurent Fabius stated on Monday that he would be closely watching the development of the situation at Canal Plus.

Following the announcement of Lescure's departure, Canal Plus personnel staged a demonstration in support of him and threatened to take the pay channel off the air.