He said it himself: Je suis un franchouillard. A derogatory term for an ‘average’ French person, that midde-class ‘Français moyen’ with all its preconceptions. Yet there was nothing average about Bernard Tapie. His death this week after a long battle with cancer was perhaps the only average thing he ever did.
Yet even that was exceptional. Tapie’s friends, from the world of entertainment and sport, politicians and media personalities, united in saying that he was a fighter, one who never gave up. Until the end he was climbing stairs to stay fit. Even when cancer turned his voice into a whisper, he was outspoken about his battle with the disease. And when he and his wife were victims of a brutal break-in to their Paris home earlier this year, he hid nothing of their shock and the injuries suffered in the attack.
It was shocking to see this once-powerful man reduced to an obviously feeble state. He showed humility but no shame, and I admired him for that.
The Paris-born Tapie was loved and hated by the French in equal measures. The son of a working-class family, in the 1980s he became the symbol of the successful businessman, le self-made man. He made his fortune buying up failing companies, the most famous of which was Adidas, and turning them around. He also owned sports teams like L’Olympique de Marseille (OM). (As an aside, I know nothing of football beyond how important it to those that follow it. Living in provincial France, you were either a fan of L’OM or L’OL, Lyon’s team.)
But Bernard Tapie was much more than a businessman. He was also a politician. Some have called him a French Trump, although I think he had more integrity. But here’s the twist: he ran as a socialist. Possibly nowhere but in France would a figurehead of the free market stand for a party on the left. Yet this is what happened when Tapie became a protegé of President François Mitterand and a deputy in the Bouches-du-Rhône department. A firm opponent of the far-right Front National, Tapie went head to head with party leader Jean Marie Le Pen on a televised debate over immigration.
This was in 1989, after we were married but still living in Canada, so I followed from afar. But I came to understand that it was groundbreaking. Why? At the time, the main political parties did not believe that the FN should be given a voice on national television. But Tapie argued that someone had to stand up to Le Pen and call him out on his lies publicly.
He later became a government minister but his political career ended early when his legal woes began, mostly over the fraud around the sale of Adidas by Credit Lyonnais. The complexities are beyond this post but the case dragged over for 26 years and court appeals were still ongoing at the time of his death.
What I find most intriguing about Tapie was his resilience. After going bankrupt, being ineligible for politics and banned from football, he returned to his first love: the arts.
Bernard Tapie began his career as a singer, but despite his obvious talent (and changing his name to ‘Tapy’) it was not to be. Yet he never gave up on his artistic ambitions completely. He continued to make singing and acting appearances throughout his career, also hosting TV programs. He later took to the stage, performing notably in the French version of the play, ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’.
The news of Bernard Tapie’s death this week at the age of 78 came as a shock. Somehow it seemed he would survive his battle against cancer, like so many others he had won. He was larger-than-life. An upstart, a renegade, one who reached great heights and lost it all. He was completely original; you couldn’t make him up. You could love him or hate him but you couldn’t be indifferent. And that, perhaps, is what made him quintessentially French.