PARIS -- Just after French financier Bernard Tapie took over the Wonder battery company in France several years ago, he starred in his own commercial, strutting square-shouldered and robot-like across the television screen while an announcer intoned repeatedly: "What makes him run?"

Back then it was batteries, but now the same question has the business world scratching its collective head and giving this self-promoting street fighter closer scrutiny. They are wondering how Tapie managed to bring off last week's acquisition of 80 percent of Adidas AG, the German sportswear giant that is some 10 times larger in annual revenue than his main company, Bernard Tapie Finance, at what most regard as the bargain price of $289 million.

Tapie, 47, engineered the Adidas coup with the same mix of brains, boast and brash ambition that he has used to make himself one of the most popular figures in France, to snatch a parliamentary seat from under a conservative favorite and to buy the Olympique Marseille soccer team and watch it win the French championship two years in a row.

It has also earned him enemies.

In many ways Tapie is France's answer to Donald Trump, an American-style entrepreneur and self-made billionaire -- at least in francs -- who has eyes for the top in most any domain. His penchant for showy yachts, fashion-conscious suits and his tendency to embellish the facts recall the American financier.

But perhaps the key to Tapie's success is his Trump-like talent for using the media to his advantage, which the French call being "mediatique." With an innate sense for the theatrical, Tapie chose the eve of the World Cup soccer tournament in Rome to unveil the Adidas purchase. He fairly glowed beside the president of the International Football Federation and Adidas executives who made the announcement, pronouncing the moment "the happiest day of my life, after the births of my children."

Tapie's banks were not as thrilled, and banking analysts suspected that he had announced the purchase before tying down the financing. It wasn't until later that all of the banks signed onto the deal. In essence, Tapie pulled off the deal using his own brand of fait accompli financing.

It was another triumph in Tapie's drive to diversify both his holdings and his influence. He owns a soccer team, a health food company, 45 percent of a tennis racket manufacturer and a weight and scale company and has a small stake in a television station.

The Entrepreneur as Socialist

Although a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist, Tapie is the self-appointed champion of the values of the ruling Socialist Party. In 1988 he was elected to Parliament as a deputy from Marseille after a tooth-and-nail fight with a right-wing candidate that ended with Tapie's demanding -- and winning -- a second runoff because the results of the first were too close.

In one of his most talked-about media successes, Tapie met Jean-Marie Le Pen of the ultra-nationalist National Front Party in a television debate and was widely regarded as having won. Le Pen is a skillful rhetorician who often uses personal innuendo to intimidate opponents. He has a tendency to tie more traditional politicians in knots. As the debate began, the financier warned Le Pen that if he tried that kind of thing, Tapie would not hesitate to stoop to his level. Le Pen behaved.

"On that day I did not make France any less racist, but I showed that Le Pen could be beaten on his own turf," Tapie later told the French newspaper Le Monde. "With him there is no possible debate of ideas; you have to shout as loud as he does."

The event last December made Tapie a hero at the Elysee Palace, and he has become part of President Francois Mitterrand's inner circle.

Tapie likes to preach, and loudly -- a quality that not everyone finds endearing. He never loses an opportunity to remind fans or critics that he comes from a working-class family and did not benefit from the privileges of a university education or the tight social network in France that propels bourgeois youth up the business ladder.

He studied to be an engineer but did not finish and held an unusual assortment of jobs before founding his holding company in 1987, hosting television variety and game shows and recording albums.

The Cagey Outsider

"He is part of nothing," said Benedicte Lecoanet, a stockbroker with the firm Puget Mahe SA that brought Bernard Tapie Finance (BTF) onto the stock market last November. "He has risen little by little; he's a great salesman and a great negotiator. He'll sell you soap; he can sell you anything."

Lecoanet said that if Tapie tends to exaggerate, it is because he gets carried away, not because he is lying. Others are more skeptical.

"He's not a bad type, but there's always a bit of murkiness to what he does; it's not ever clear," said Caroline Monnot, a Le Monde business reporter who follows Tapie closely. "He always talks a lot; he does a lot of bluffing."

In typical fashion, Tapie called Le Monde last week to propose an interview on his acquisition of Adidas, then called back an hour later to cancel when he learned that the newspaper was going to publish comments from people who doubted his ability to finance the deal.

One of those people, a stockbroker who spoke on condition his name not be used, said: "It {Bernard Tapie Finance} is a very weird company. It's not that they're crooks, but I don't like the fact that there's so much communication. I like communication when it's true."

A typical example of Tapie's tendency to give selective information was when he made the deal on the Wonder battery company in 1984, the broker said. Tapie held a press conference and claimed capital gains on all of the company, when he owned only 40 percent of it.

"He forgets sometime that he's speaking to analysts and not to journalists," said the broker. "He's a real good talker: 'Believe me, trust me.' I don't trust that 100 percent."

To Many Frenchmen, a Hero

Tapie's reputation will certainly play a role in his ability to sustain a huge amount of debt or refinance his assets if necessary, but for the moment he seems to have captured the imagination of the French. BTF stock shot up from 140 francs a share before the Adidas announcement to 249 on Thursday.

To the French, Tapie is a symbol of a national ability to compete aggressively and successfully in the world market. The idea of a French business executive buying a German institution like Adidas has only further endeared him to his public.

"He is someone who has been in the news for the past 12 years," said Lecoanet. "He started in the beginning by explaining to the French that there are fantastic opportunities in France, that if the French worked hard, they could be very successful. He has revolutionized more than a few things in France; he has proved that even someone who has no diploma, who is not part of the old-boy network, can still work hard and succeed."

All of this is capital that Tapie seems to be carefully guarding for the future. There are whispers in political circles that he has presidential ambitions, and in a recent interview Tapie did not rule out the possibility.

He seems to be well-placed for such an attempt; in a June poll by the SOFRES polling company, Tapie, a lowly legislator, was named the fourth most popular politician in France, after the president, prime minister and president of the National Assembly.