Dominique Manotti: Dead Horsemeat

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Dominique Manotti Dead Horsemeat
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Dominique Manotti

Dead Horsemeat

Friday 9 June 1989

A slack sea on a grey day. Annick surveys the little auditorium where Pama’s Annual General Meeting is taking place, a windowless room with grey walls and grey seats. Three or four hundred shareholders in dark suits, the soft hum of murmured conversations. Pama handles billions, it is one of France’s biggest corporations. But from the shareholders’ demeanour, anyone would think that that the slightest splash of colour, the hint of a raised voice would jeopardise the entire edifice.

Pama’s communications director for two years, Annick is sitting high up in the auditorium, every nerve taut. Beside her, Nicolas Berger, her childhood friend and loyal assistant, is already bored stiff.

The board of directors enters en masse. A hush falls over the room.

‘I always expect the shareholders to stand up at the entrance of the captain and his crew, like we used to do for our teachers at school,’ says Nicolas.

No reply. Annick fishes in her bag, sneaks out a cigarette, takes cover behind the row of seats in front, lights it, takes three puffs, then crushes it out on the sole of her shoe.

The directors have taken their seats on the platform. The Chairman’s gaze sweeps the room. An elderly, cold and austere man. A lone wolf in the financial tundra. He attempts to smile and his face cracks. He taps his mike and declares the AGM open in an amicable tone, a role that goes against the grain. Then he summarises the Annual Report in a droning voice. Pama is a conglomerate active in nearly every economic sector, and this diversity allows it to limit the risks and ensure the company’s stability. The firm has long been part of the French financial establishment, and the Chairman makes no effort to win over or convince. He has no idea, thinks Annick, her hands folded in her lap. She closes her eyes and forces herself to breathe slowly. Nicolas sits lost in thought, his mind freewheeling.

Xavier Jubelin is at one end of the platform, sitting slightly aloof. He listens intently, and even takes notes from time to time. Two years ago, he was at the helm of a thriving, medium-sized insurance company that was taken over by Pama, of which he is now a respected director. Sporty-looking, with a square jaw and astonishingly mobile eyes, he’s twenty years younger than the Chairman, who, rumour has it, is grooming Jubelin to be his successor. It is his turn to speak. Annick, her heart in her mouth, feels as if she’s leaping into the void. First of all, an even-toned statement of fact. Pama is a holding company, mired by an excessive number of financial interests in an ill-assorted mix of companies. It should gradually shed its investments in industry and refocus on its core business – insurance and property – to revive its flagging energies. In short, contrary to what some people believe and say, the company needs a radical change of direction.

Nicolas jumps and sits bolt upright.

‘Did I hear right? Jubelin’s declaring war on the Chairman?’

Annick makes no reply. Her eyes still shut, she is listening to her heart pounding. Jubelin continues, a ruthless edge to his voice.

‘We have put several motions to this effect to the Board, which has refused to consider them. This is unacceptable. That is why today, we are appealing to the AGM.’

The tension in the auditorium is palpable. Not a sound, all eyes on Jubelin. Nicolas touches Annick’s arm.

‘Don’t fall asleep, things are hotting up.’

Still no reaction.

On the platform, the directors lean towards each other muttering, their hands over their microphones. One of them, Domenico Mori, an Italian, an elegant figure with romantic silver hair, takes the floor. He heads an Italian industrial metallurgy consortium which he built up himself from a family business. His group is Pama’s main shareholder, the linchpin on which the Chairman’s power relies. And Mori is an old personal friend of the Chairman’s, they go pheasant shooting together in Czechoslovakia. The audience listens in silence, in deference to the millions he carries on his shoulders, and there is a sense of relief on the platform: order will be restored.

‘We have no reason to oppose Monsieur Jubelin’s suggestions.’ Hint of an Italian accent.

A tremor runs through the gathering. Pale and drawn, the Chairman murmurs, forgetting to cover the mike: ‘Traitor… disgraceful behaviour from an old friend…’. Annick opens her eyes and gnaws her thumb. The platform goes into a huddle, panic is setting in and the audience can clearly sense it. They can’t let matters rest there. Counter the attack before rebellion spreads through the ranks. The Chairman proposes an immediate vote by show of hands between the two opposing strategies, his and Jubelin’s. The ensuing discussion will depend on the outcome.

Hands raised, a careful count, Jubelin carries the vote. Whistles echo around the room, it’s like a football match. The directors get to their feet and talk among themselves. The mike picks up a voice distinctly saying: ‘It’s a coup d’état’. At opposite ends of the platform are Jubelin and Mori, the only ones still seated, seemingly oblivious to the pandemonium.

Nicolas turns to Annick.

‘You knew, and you didn’t breathe a word?’

Annick says nothing and brushes his cheek with her fingertips, smiling.

Then things move fast. From the floor, Perrot, a property developer whose business is booming supports Jubelin and requests a proxy vote. They all feverishly do their sums on scraps of paper. Jubelin controls ten per cent of the proxies, the Italian twenty-five. Perrot is a negligible quantity. Who completes the picture? The Parillaud bank representative seconds Perrot’s proposal.

Sitting next to Annick is Deluc, a presidential advisor and small shareholder in Pama. He leans towards her:

‘The Mass is ended, go forth in peace, sister.’

Annick takes a deep breath and de-stresses.

The directors who are with the Chairman leave the platform, cross the auditorium and exit in silence. The scions of the oldest established French industrial and banking families leave without a word of thanks, like flunkeys.

‘They’re off to the elephants’ graveyard,’ mutters Nicolas.

The Chairman, Jubelin and Mori remain alone on the platform. Jubelin wins with seventy per cent of the votes. The choreography of victory. The Chairman frantically gathers his scattered papers, his face grim. The lone wolf is cornered. This is the end.

Annick rises. She thinks she sees patches of congealed blood on the grey wall fabric. I’ve been waiting for this moment for two years, and now it’s happened, but I’m not over the moon as I expected. What I want more than anything else is a hot bath. And now, to work.

Dive into the loo. A quick snort of coke. Check make-up, retouch it slightly. Then Annick steps into the lift and goes up to the twentieth floor. Her secretary greets her with a big smile. News travels fast.

She opens the door to her office. Spacious, black wall-to-wall carpet, white walls. To the left, a matt steel desk, and on the wall, a triptych by Soulages. To the right, a lounge area, two low tables, black leather sofas and armchairs. And facing the door, a vast bay window looking out over the concrete panorama of La Défense and the Grande Arche.

A dozen journalists are sipping fruit juice, whisky and wine, waiting for her. A perfectly informal meeting between friends prior to tomorrow morning’s press conference when Jubelin will report on Pama’s AGM. When she walks in, they all raise their glasses, and the room echoes with congratulations.

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