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Could Orange’s CEO end up in prison?

Orange CEO Stephane Richard is widely respected throughout the telco industry, but he is also currently embroiled in a legal battle which could land him behind bars.

For his alleged role in the misuse of public funds while he was working for the Finance Ministry, French prosecutors have called for Richard to be sentenced to three years in jail. He would only spend half this time in prison, but this would be 18 months too long for almost everyone you ask.

The trial itself is drawing to a close, but this is hardly news, dating back to the 90s and the financial affairs of businessman Bernard Tapie. After making millions and eventually an 80% stake in German sports brand Adidas, Tapie faced debts and instructed state-owned Crédit Lyonnais to sell his stake. After the sale, Tapie was unable to settle said debts and challenged Crédit Lyonnais, suggesting the bank sold shares at a depressed rate.

This is where Richard steps into the fray. Tapie backed Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election, which he went onto win. After this victory, the Sarkozy Government set up an independent arbitration panel to settle the case between Tapie and Crédit Lyonnais, instead of challenging the legal case brought against the bank which was the previous rhetoric.

After Tapie was awarded €403 million by the panel, the French Finance Ministry came under extreme criticism. At this point, Richard was serving as Chief of Staff for Christine Lagarde, Finance Minister at the time and now the head of the International Monetary Fund.

The players in this game are accused of creating this panel, and the subsequent settlement, as a convert reward for the support Tapie gave Sarkozy during the election campaign. This is the gloomy side of politics which causes so many to groan at the moral fibre of today’s politicians; there is always someone to thank one way or another. Since this point, a Paris court annulled the panel’s decision and ordered Tapie to repay the funds.

It’s all very nefarious, grimy and complicated, however Richard is tied up due to his position and alleged action during the latter stages of the affair.

What is clear, however, is that Richard is potentially facing prison time for his role.

As we understand it, Richard’s team is confident he will not end up on the losing side, though there is always a chance one of Europe’s leading telcos could be thrown into disaster as its CEO is locked up. Aside from a prison sentence, prosecutors are also pursuing a €100,000 fine and a ban from working for any organization where the French Government has a stake for five years. Currently, the Government owns around 13% of Orange.

Orange has no comment on the saga at this point, as this is a personal issue for Richard not the telco’s business. However, we suspect there must have been some whispered conversations behind closed doors discussing contingency plans; it would be irresponsible of the Orange management team if they were not.

The trial will likely conclude this week, though this does not mean we will be any closer to a decision. Richard will be left on the edge of his seat for the next couple of months, with a decision expected after the summer.


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