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PARIS (Reuters) - French billionaire Vincent Bollore, chairman of media group Vivendi, faced a political backlash on Thursday following reports he wants to shut down a satirical TV show renowned for its attacks on the country's elite.
Bollore owns 15 percent of Vivendi, the parent company of pay-TV channel Canal Plus, which has broadcast the show "Les Guignols", featuring puppets of everyone from presidents to sports stars, since 1988.
The tycoon wants to cancel the show and has met Canal Plus managers in recent days to discuss its future, according to one person familiar with the situation, confirming information first reported by online outlet PureMedias and then by others including in Le Monde daily.
A second source said talks between Bollore and executives were about the autumn programing line-up and strategy of Canal Plus more broadly, and no decision on "Les Guignols" had been made.
Bollore has deep ties to France's political class. His family-owned conglomerate Bollore Group is active in logistics and transport, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy celebrated his election in 2007 on the tycoon's yacht.
Leading French politicians rushed to defend the show despite its habit of mercilessly mocking those in power.
"I love seeing myself on 'Les Guignols'. We need them," tweeted Alain Juppe, a center-right presidential candidate and mayor of Bordeaux, after changing his profile photo to one of his puppet on the show.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said France needed the show in "difficult times", six months after deadly attacks on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo prompted soul-searching over free speech and religion. "In our country, caricature and impertinence are necessary," he told Agence France Presse in Toulouse.
Former Canal Plus boss Pierre Lescure told Les Echos daily he had resigned from the board of Vivendi-owned advertising and public relations group Havas in protest. Bollore owns 60 percent of Havas and his son is CEO.
"Les Guignols" once wielded considerable influence on the public image of France's politicians, helping boost Jacques Chirac's popularity ahead of the 1995 elections by depicting him as a jovial man in a Hawaiian shirt eating apples.
Its portrayals of President Francois Hollande as a dim bumbler and former President Nicolas Sarkozy as an over-excitable dwarf were arguably much harsher.
A Canal Plus spokesperson declined to comment. Vivendi said programing decisions for Canal Plus would be announced by mid-July as was customary.
Bollore believes the French pay-TV operator needs renewal given stiffer competition from free channels as well as online video. Canal Plus' revenue in France fell by nearly 3 percent last year, while profit dropped 9 percent.
After selling off four of six business units in the past two years under Bollore's leadership, Vivendi now consists of Canal Plus, France's leading pay-TV platform, and the world's biggest music label Universal Music Group.
Whether "Les Guignols" remains on the air next autumn remains to be seen and no decision has been made, said the two sources.
But it is clear Bollore, known for his hands-on style, has been pressuring Canal Plus to up its game, renew its bench of talent, and revive the fortunes of its prime-time chat and news show "Le Grand Journal", which has lost audience.
Editing by Mark John and Mark Potter