Investor blows fuse at arms boss's weaker sex jibe

PARIS Thu Apr 21, 2011 11:57am EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - The chairman of French defense company Safran hailed the arrival of the "weaker sex" on the company's board Thursday -- triggering accusations of sexism from France's best-known shareholder activist.

Francis Mer, 71, chairman of the state-controlled firm whose engines power French nuclear missiles and the Rafale warplane, dropped the bombshell at a shareholder meeting which agreed to modernize the company's governance rules.

"It will not have escaped your attention that ... we will be in a situation where the so-called weaker sex will be making a deafening entry into our board," Mer told shareholders.

The changes, creating a normal board out of a complex structure inherited from a merger in 2004, will increase the number of female board members from one to five, a figure Mer described as "close to the record."

"Breaking records ... in this area is easier and less dangerous than in aviation or safety matters," he said.

Mer, 71, is a blunt-spoken former steelmaking CEO and finance minister best known for his blustery approach to full-time politicians and the press. His comments drew immediate flak from a staunch campaigner for investor rights in France.

"I completely reject these terms, the mere use of which says a lot about attitudes to women," Colette Neuville, president of the ADAM association of minority shareholders, told Reuters.

"Coming from the head of a company which insists on equality, they are completely unacceptable," she added.

France has long been criticized for lagging its neighbors in the number of women reaching the top of major business. Its parliament voted last year to order many companies to have 40 percent of board posts occupied by women within six years.

"You can be for or against quotas - personally I am against them -- but it is regrettable that this should be turned into a joke, and one in very poor taste," Neuveille said.

Safran declined to comment.

Mer was recruited from a steel firm to be France's finance minister between 2002 and 2004, but got off on the wrong foot by calling his cabinet colleagues "you politicians," a gaffe he later made the title of a book.

He is expected to be named vice-chairman under a new Safran board to be led by chief executive Jean-Paul Herteman.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher, Cyril Altmeyer; Editing by Christian Plumb)

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