PARIS (Reuters) - French officials threw support behind former nuclear boss Anne Lauvergeon to be the first chairwoman of EADS EAD.PA on Sunday in a move likely to test efforts to wrest the European aerospace group away from political influence.
An adviser to French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the Socialist government strongly supported Lauvergeon, a former aide of late President Francois Mitterrand and France’s most high-profile female business leader.
EADS is carrying out the biggest reorganization in its 12-year history after France and Germany agreed on a new shareholder structure designed to secure their vital interests while freeing the company from day-to-day interference.
Company watchers say the composition of the board will test the spirit of the accords and determine whether Chief Executive Tom Enders is free to run the company as independently as he claims, or will be forced to rely on building alliances.
EADS shares are up 18 percent this year on hopes of a fresh start after years of political in-fighting.
“The government is very supportive (of Lauvergeon),” the French prime minister’s adviser said.
“As shareholder, we think she has all the qualities required to be the non-executive chairwoman of EADS.”
EADS declined comment.
Under a new ownership structure agreed late last year, France and Germany will own 12 percent each of EADS EAD.PA, the parent company of Toulouse-based planemaker Airbus, but their powers to veto nomination and strategy are curtailed.
Lauvergeon, ex-head of reactor maker Areva is one of two personalities lined up to represent France’s interests at the Airbus parent group alongside ex-central banker Jean-Claude Trichet, but the choice of chairman is meant to be independent.
Echoing a newspaper report, another French government source said German Chancellor Angela Merkel had backed Lauvergeon in a meeting with French President Francois Hollande last week.
However, Merkel’s office denied any deal over the EADS post.
“The German government does not want to take a stance (on this issue) for the time being,” spokesman Steffen Seibert said in Chile where Merkel was attending an EU-Latin American summit.
Although Lauvergeon enjoys the backing of some French officials, the French finance ministry issued a statement apparently designed to cool speculation over the appointments and recalling a company-driven process agreed in December.
The December deal allows Enders to nominate a triumvirate designed to protect French defense interests in EADS, of which two would serve on the main board. The arrangement is mirrored by similar arrangements for Germany, which has parity in EADS.
The finance ministry said Enders had proposed Lauvergeon and Trichet, as well as a retired French general, to oversee a holding company protecting technologies like nuclear weapons.
Of these three, Lauvergeon and Trichet would, if the list were accepted, serve on the main board, it said in a statement.
Under the company restructuring, the government has the power to accept or reject the list in its entirety but cannot hand-pick individual members nor directly appoint the chairman.
Still, the appointment of a new board chairman is seen as a delicate balancing act.
As long as EADS is run by the German-born Enders, the chairman of the board is likely to be French.
An informal unpublished agreement also stipulates that four board seats each should be reserved for French and German citizens, according to two people familiar with the discussions. But two of the four on each side must be independent.
It remained unclear how Lauvergeon’s status as state watchdog would affect her chances of becoming chairwoman, or how easily she would fit alongside Enders as CEO. Both have strong characters and a reputation for a hands-on management style.
People familiar with the accords say they do not exclude one of the government-endorsed board members also becoming chairman but warn this could create a potential political imbalance. This could leave the door open to an independent to lead the board.
Potential French independent board members include Alcatel-Lucent Chairman Philippe Camus, Saint-Gobain Honorary Chairman Jean-Louis Beffa and ex-Thales CEO Denis Ranque.
A French official said the government did not favor Camus for EADS, believing he had work to do turning round Alcatel.
Sources said German board members would include former business association leader Hans-Peter Keitel, former EADS chairman Manfredd Bischoff, former Deutsche Bank chief operating officer Hermann-Josef Lamberti and Enders himself as CEO.
Underscoring EADS efforts to become a global company, four remaining seats on the 12-person board are likely to include three existing members - British mining executive Sir John Parker, Indian-born steel boss Lakshmi Mittal and the Spanish economist Josep Pique i Camps - and possibly a U.S. citizen.
Additional reporting by Geert De Clercq, Andreas Rinke; Editing by Jane Baird