Bernard Tapie (Laurent Lafitte) lies in the trunk of the car clutching a black leather bag.

The Life and Times of Bernard Tapie

Class Act charts the rise and fall of the implausible mogul whose appetite for fame captured France’s imagination.

8 May 20248 min read

Bernard Tapie. In France, it’s a name that calls to mind insatiable ambition — the kind usually associated with a working-class hero or a corrupt antihero. “Whether we like him or not, he left no one indifferent,” say Tristan Séguéla and Olivier Demangel, co-creators of the series Class Act, which takes on the controversial businessman’s larger-than-life story by embracing its contradictions. “Bernard is portrayed neither as an unscrupulous crook nor as an ideal successful man. He is a man, with his qualities and his faults, his aptitudes and his limits.”

Now nominated for a BAFTA TV Award, the fictionalized biographical series, directed by Séguéla (Un homme heureux) and co-written with Demangel (Atlantics), spans 1966 to 1997 and depicts Tapie’s rise from an everyman to the symbol of a “winning France.” He builds unbelievable success out of sheer self-belief — the same material he eventually uses to engineer his own downfall. 

Over the course of seven episodes, Bernard wears many hats: the singer who almost makes it, the scrappy entrepreneur, the mogul with a majority stake in Adidas, the charming TV host, the straight-talking politician, and finally, the soccer team owner who steers the Olympique de Marseille underdogs to France’s first Champions League victory — and then loses it all, embroiled in a match-fixing scandal that lands him in prison. 

Bernard Tapie (Laurent Lafitte) carries a suitcase to the trunk of a red car.

Bernard Tapie (Laurent Lafitte)

In real life, Tapie’s story didn’t end there. Forever pulling himself up by his bootstraps, he went on to a career as a stage and screen actor before his death from cancer in 2021. His “ambition, energy, and enthusiasm were a source of inspiration for generations of French,” President Emmanuel Macron wrote in a letter of condolence to Tapie’s family. “He led a thousand lives.”

“This was a guiding principle of the writing,” explain Séguéla and Demangel, “the life of a man who wants to experience everything, try everything.” Each episode takes us through an era of Tapie — his sojourn as a TV salesman, his 52-day stint as France’s urban affairs minister, his takeover of a debt-ridden multinational battery company — all animated by a commanding performance from actor Laurent Lafitte. It was Lafitte who planted the seed for Class Act over a decade ago when, starring in Séguéla’s first feature film The Adulteen, he donned a wig that reminded the director of Tapie.

Bernard Tapie (Laurent Lafitte) walks through a crowd of reporters

Bernard Tapie (Laurent Lafitte)

A member of the prestigious Comédie-Française, Lafitte (See You Up There, The Takedown, Dear Mother) oozes charisma yet always humanizes Bernard with a motivating desire to be the good guy. It’s an unfamiliar balance for an American audience assailed by stories of egomaniacal con men with redeeming qualities you can count on one hand. “We didn’t want to portray a man who wants power or money, but one who wants popularity,” say Class Act’s creators. “His family and working-class background explain a lot of the sympathy that the general public has always had for him. He never turned his back on his social origins.” 

Lafitte’s Bernard straddles the precipice between success and excess throughout the series. In Episode 4, he prepares for the premiere of his live TV show, Success, a business program à la Shark Tank. He begins the day with swaggering confidence, demanding that dancers and literal fireworks accompany his broadcast. And when his company’s union tries to disrupt the event with a strike, he refuses to talk to them. Bernard’s family saves him from himself: His father (Patrick D’Assumçao) guides him into a fair deal with the union, and his spouse, Dominique — in a delightful performance of balletic discipline from actor Joséphine Japy (Breathe, Love at Second Sight) — pilots the TV rehearsal to perfection. Coming to his senses, Bernard replaces the fireworks with an unpretentious speech that shows off his workingman appeal. 

Bernard Tapie (Laurent Lafitte) and Dominique Damianos (Joséphine Japy) stand by someone's sick bed in this behind the scenes shot.

Bernard Tapie (Laurent Lafitte) and Dominique Damianos (Joséphine Japy)

The scene is a stellar example of the archival material that Séguéla and Demangel uncovered during their research process — it’s a winking reproduction of the opening sequence of Tapie’s real-life show, Ambitions, which premiered in 1986. Scouring that trove of material also informed the original dialogue they wrote: “We honed his sentences, tried to transcribe his way of thinking and expressing himself. The word was one of Bernard’s deadly weapons, like his physical presence and his aura.”

Bernard’s private life in Class Act is fiction, but the chemistry between Lafitte and Japy is undeniably real. They radiate mutual admiration in their portrayal of a decades-long romantic and business partnership that supplies the series’ emotional core. “We really wanted to stay close to Tapie, as close as possible,” say Séguéla and Demangel, “in his private life, in the privacy of his decisions, in the excess of his desires and his ambitions.”

Tapie’s career highs and lows are a matter of public record — his grit, his charm, his willingness to bend the rules to make his name. When Class Act leaves Bernard, he’s curled up in the trunk of his dad’s car, hoping to elude the press on his way to an eight-month prison sentence for match-fixing. It’s a far cry from his office at the Élysée Palace or a football stadium full of admiring fans. But as he tells Dominique from behind a plexiglass barrier, “Life chooses your name. . . . I wasn’t born Bernard Tapie. I became Bernard Tapie. At least I achieved that.”

Proving the story’s universal appeal, Class Act landed in Netflix’s Top 10 in France for five consecutive weeks. “Tapie embodied a sort of French American dream,” say Séguéla and Demangel. “Starting from nothing and making it to the top.”