By Leila Abboud
PARIS (Reuters) - French media group Vivendi (VIV.PA) pushed out Rodolphe Belmer as chief of its Canal Plus unit on Friday amid disappointment over what one source said was a failure to rejuvenate the pay-TV channel and halt a drop in sales and profits.
The move came amid a high-profile controversy over the fate of channel's long-running satirical puppet show "Les Guignols" but the source said it had nothing to do with Belmer's ousting.
Canal Plus parent company Vivendi said in a statement on Friday it had named Canal Plus head of pay-TV Maxime Saada as new chief executive, and appointed Canal Plus chief financial officer Gregoire Castaing to the channel's management board.
Canal Plus president Bertrand Meheut - whom Belmer was expected to succeed - was confirmed in his role and would stay in the company, a Vivendi spokesman said.
Belmer could not be reached for comment and Canal Plus declined comment.
Vincent Bollore, who owns 15 percent of Vivendi and is the chairman of the group, said in a separate statement the Guignols programme was an important part of the company's history.
"It is out of the question that we would deprive the company of this jewel, which is the group's property, but the management of Canal+ and Vivendi will have to decide under which format and when the programme will be broadcast," a Bollore spokesman said.
A source had told Reuters on Thursday that Bollore was considering cancelling the programme and had met Canal Plus managers in recent days to discuss its future.
Top French politicians leapt to the defence of the show in the name of freedom of expression. The puppet show started in 1988 and is renowned for its attacks on the country's elite and features puppets of everyone from presidents to sports stars.
A source familiar with the situation told Reuters Belmer's exit had nothing to do with the debate about Les Guignols but more that Vivendi was not happy with the fact that Belmer had not managed to arrest the erosion of sales and profits.
"There was a certain lack of dynamism around Canal Plus business that needed to be rectified," said the source,
Bollore believes the French pay-TV operator needs renewal, because of 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.
The source also said Belmer, Mehuet and Saada were not cooperating well. French media have repeatedly speculated that Meheut would retire with Belmer taking over, but Meheut stayed put, which led to tensions between the two executives.
(Reporting by Leila Abboud, writing by Geert De Clercq, editing by Mark John)