But to achieve this Mr Sarkozy would have to push out Anne Lauvergeon, the hard-headed boss of Areva who has steadfastly resisted any break-up.

Publié le par François Alex


COMPANIES EUROPE: Industry awaits Sarkozy shuffle

Tradition has it that when a new president is elected in France, he or she celebrates the victory by distributing a special kind of largesse. For ordinary citizens, all traffic offences are waived. And for those who helped the new president to power are reserved the plum jobs in France's state-controlled companies.

This time round however Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-of- centre UMP candidate who swept to victory on Sunday night, has pledged neither to absolve the law breakers nor to reward his closest allies with corporate appointments.

Nevertheless, speculation about musical chairs at companies such as Areva, EDF, Gaz de France, SNCF, and even EADS, the Franco-German aerospace group - only 15 per cent owned by the French government - has been the Paris parlour game for several weeks now.

For example, when Mr Sarkozy publicly dismissed comments from Anne-Marie Idrac, head of rail monopoly SNCF, on how to deal with unions, many inside the company decided her days were numbered. Pierre Gadonneix of electricity monopoly EDF is also said to have a strained relationship with the UMP candidate and many observers note he turns 65 in January.

If there are changes, some suspect they could be accompanied by a complicated reshuffling of corporate interests. Mr Sarkozy's close relationship with some of France's wealthiest industrialists is regarded suspiciously, and his brief sojourn this week on the yacht of media entrepreneur Vincent Bolloré sparked national outrage.

It did not pass unnoticed that Mr Bolloré has had his eye on TF1, France's premier television channel, currently owned by industrial conglomerate Bouygues.

Meanwhile, Martin Bouygues, the family-controlled group's chief executive, is a close friend of Mr Sarkozy, and has long hankered after the engineering division of nuclear group Areva.

People close to Mr Sarkozy are adamant that the new president will not take a passive approach to some of the most pressing industrial issues, such the future of the energy sector.

But they firmly reject suggestions that such "industrial meccano" would be driven by personal interests, and indeed the deep hatred between the Bouygues and Bolloré camps makes such speculation seem frivolous. "There are rules and these things must be transparent," said one close adviser.

Yet the adviser did not rule out a division of Areva into two parts that could eventually benefit Bouygues as part of a wider energy strategy. The group could be split into a publicly quoted engineering group designing and building reactors and power stations, enhanced by the expertise of Bouygues and Alstom, the turbine maker; and separately a state-controlled uranium mining and waste recycling business.

But to achieve this Mr Sarkozy would have to push out Anne Lauvergeon, the hard-headed boss of Areva who has steadfastly resisted any break-up.

Mr Sarkozy has attempted twice unsuccessfully to woo Ms Lauvergeon into his new government. His determination to get France's most high profile female boss back into politics has merely reinforced speculation that eventually such a deal will be done.

EADS is a more difficult challenge. Mr Sarkozy has been publicly critical of the Franco-German shareholding structure, and even the highly-regarded Louis Gallois, French co-chief executive, is under fire for his handling of the controversial job cuts programme at Airbus, the aircraft subsidiary.

But rumours of Mr Gallois' departure may be premature. One senior politician says swapping chief executives again would serve little purpose, even if the job cuts programme could have been handled better.

That Mr Sarkozy wants to change the structure of the aerospace group is clear. But negotiating with his German partners will take time. Perhaps, say those most informed, the best chance for management changes will be when French and German shareholders eventually agree on a capital increase. That could also be the opportunity to bring in new industrial investors.

Finally, the problem remains of what to do with Gaz de France, stymied in its attempt to merge with privately-owned Suez. Mr Sarkozy, who as finance minister pledged the state's stake would not fall below 70 per cent, has never been a fan of the merger, says the industrial adviser, who says the deal can still proceed, assuming Suez remains keen.

That may be key. The sharp difference in share price could now make a deal politically impossible, says one insider. More likely, say some, is that Mr Sarkozy will use the prospect of abandoning the deal as a bargaining chip to win union support for wider pension and labour reforms.

By Peggy Hollinger in Paris


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