France backs Lauvergeon for "major" EADS role

Mon Jan 28, 2013 8:00am EST

* Moscovici sees "major role" for ex-Areva chief at EADS

* Comments reinforce calls to make Lauvergeon board chief

* Lauvergeon, Trichet also to represent France on EADS board

* Board lobbying risks clash with EADS over independence

By Cyril Altmeyer and Tim Hepher

PARIS, Jan 28 (Reuters) - France has stepped up support for Anne Lauvergeon as the potential new chairwoman of EADS , injecting fresh uncertainty into efforts to free the European aerospace group's top management from state interference.

Finance minister Pierre Moscovici said on Monday the former head of nuclear power group Areva could play a "major role" in Airbus owner EADS, where she is due to represent French government interests alongside former European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet.

"She will be at EADS as a board member: that is already decided because the the (French) state can nominate two people and has chosen Anne Lauvergeon and Jean-Claude Trichet," Moscovici told France Info radio.

"Let us respect the governance structures of the company ... but it seems to me that she has all the necessary qualities to play a major role at EADS in view of her energy and industrial competence."

The comments come just seven weeks after France and Germany struck a deal to rebalance their stakes in EADS while freeing the company's management from day-to-day interference.

EADS declined to comment on Moscovici's remarks, but analysts said they would test the solidity of the new shareholder agreements on two fronts.

Firstly, the agreement does not allow either the French or German government to nominate the chairman of EADS, where the appointment process is being run by an independent director.

Secondly, although France and Germany are represented by a total of four seats on the 12-person board, the nominations are taken from a list technically put forward by EADS itself -- a nuance which risks being swept overboard in the shake-up.

Chief Executive Tom Enders included Lauvergon on a list of acceptable French representatives submitted to the government on Friday, but analysts question how easily the two would work together if she added the role of chairwoman.

"It is a political affair. It seems there is some state interference which is not necessarily in line with what we might have expected from the new governance structure," said aerospace industry analyst Christophe Menard at Kepler Securities.

Despite the board tremors which began at the weekend, EADS shares rose 0.8 percent to 35.05 euros.

Investors have driven the EADS share price up to levels not seen since 2006 as the new shareholder agreement gets rid of a raft of wider restrictions on the group's freedom to operate and increases the free float of shares in the market to 70 percent from 50 percent.

However, the mechanism for choosing a board is central to EADS efforts to ditch political influence and guarantees several days of feverish behind-the-scenes activity.

"Everything depends on how Enders manages to manoeuvre. The game is not yet over," Kepler's Menard said.

BOILING POINT

A French industrial source who asked not to be named expressed "horror" at what the source perceived as a campaign to install Lauvergeon, disrupting the agreed nomination process.

"It is a political bid for the EADS board," the source said.

French newspaper La Tribune said the probable arrival of Lauvergeon, a forceful personality with strong links to the ruling Socialist government, had driven EADS to "boiling point".

However, Lauvergeon, nicknamed "Atomic Anne" after her leadership of Areva, where she was ousted by the previous French government in 2011, has many political and industrial admirers.

A person close to the former Mitterrand aide said last week that she was not running any campaign for EADS, but had the qualities to take on new responsibilities if asked. Lauvergeon has been linked unsuccessfully with several top jobs.

French President Francois Hollande is seen unlikely to back Lauvergeon to the point of open conflict with EADS so soon after peace broke out at the faction-ridden company, leaving her fate somewhat dependent on the reaction of the EADS board.

Moscovici meanhile raised doubts over the role of Philippe Camus, the chairman of technology group Alcatel-Lucent who is said to have independent backing to become EADS's chairman.

Camus has "a lot to do at Alcatel," Moscovici said. "It's a company which is not always in an easy situation and which represents substantial economic interests."

Camus helped found EADS from a merger of French, German and Spanish aerospace companies in 2000, but was pushed out as co-chief executive five years later after a management coup backed by then French president Jacques Chirac.