PARIS Shareholders in French directories company Pages Jaunes PAJ.PA on Wednesday resoundingly rejected activist investor Guy Wyser-Pratte's attempt to get himself and an ally named to its board as independent directors.
Wyser-Pratte, who has been critical of U.S. private equity firm Cerberus's role at the directories company, received just 16 percent of shareholders' votes, while his colleague Pierre Nollet got only 5.5 percent.
Earlier, a Wyser-Pratte ally, Jacques-Henri Davide, drew applause when he proposed a resolution aimed at ending the double votes which have lifted Cerberus' voting rights to close to 28 percent, compared with a financial stake of 18.5 percent.
The Pages Jaunes board declined to allow a vote on the surprise proposal on Wednesday, but left the door open to its being considered at a later shareholders meeting.
Wyser-Pratte, who has said Pages Jaunes should sell either a stake in itself or the entire company to reduce debt and become a stronger competitor, pledged to form a committee to defend minority shareholders as a way of unifying those opposed to Cerberus's policies.
Accusing Cerberus of pursuing a "scorched earth" policy at assets like Chrysler in the United States, Wyser-Pratte was also sharply critical of Goldman Sachs Group (GS.N) and private equity firm KKR & Co (KKR.N), who were behind the original 2006 takeover of Pages Jaunes.
"They siphoned everything out of the company, then slunk away," he said.
Earlier, Pages Jaunes Chief Executive Jean-Pierre Remy insisted that reducing the company's 1.7 billion euro debt load was "a priority." The company has already set a target of cutting debt to 1.5 billion by 2015.
The French phone directories company is one of several such publishers who have been hit, as users switch to online search engines such as Google Inc (GOOG.O) to find local listings.
They include YP, the former yellow pages unit of AT&T, majority controlled by Cerberus since last year, Italy's Seat Pagine Gialle (PGIT.MI), also heavily indebted and which in February abandoned its own business targets, and British Yellow Pages publisher Hibu Plc HIBU.L , which trades as a penny stock and is trying to restructure its balance sheet.
Cerberus owns 18.5 percent of Pages Jaunes and has acknowledged that the company's debt - an increasing concern since a 2006 leveraged buyout - is an urgent matter, but has denied that it represents a crisis.
The Pages Jaunes battle is one of the rare recent cases of open tensions among shareholders in France, although the role of private equity firms, which are viewed with suspicion by some investors, has sometimes been a flashpoint as with Colony Capital and its support for a recent move to replace the CEO of hotel chain Accor(ACCP.PA).
Pages Jaunes shares are down 3.7 percent so far this year after losing 33 percent last year.
Shareholders also approved a name change for Pages Jaunes, meaning that from now on it will be called Solocal.
(Reporting By Christian Plumb and Matthieu Protard, Editing by Dominique Vidalon and Gunna Dickson)