Culture minister Jacques Aillagon, a member of the incoming French government, warned Wednesday that foreign predators should not contemplate sinking their teeth into Vivendi Universal.

His caution was uttered against a background of press and market speculation that US corporate raiders could be conspiring to break-up the French media, entertainment and environmental services multinational.

Said Aillagon: “The purchase of this group by a foreign company would have incalculable consequences. It would threaten the cultural diversity to which we are so attached ... we would seek to block or control such a sale within the limits permitted by the law.”

Alarm is spreading across the French establishment that events at Vivendi could be spiralling out of control and that Jean-Marie Messier’s grip on the driving wheel is slipping. Of greatest concern is the possible fate of Vivendi’s TV unit Canal Plus – seen by many as an icon of Gallic culture on a par with Asterix.

The first tremors were felt earlier this week when French daily newspaper Le Monde reported it to have “come within a hair's breadth of default” at the end of 2001 – a report that is set to trigger a lawsuit. The report may also have had a bearing on Vivendi’s downgrading Wednesday by Standard & Poors, thrust down the credit ladder to just two rungs above junk status.

Commenting on the red alert, an unnamed member of Vivendi’s executive committee said: “It is clear that the market is not looking at the sum of the parts any more. It thinks it's too complex and that Vivendi Environnement [the group’s utilities arm] is too difficult to sell. But in the long-term the value of Vivendi will return to its break-up value, with or without the management.”

Data sourced from: Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff