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Schneider’s Christel Heydemann frontrunner for Orange CEO job

With the end of January fast approaching, time is running out for Orange to find a successor to Stephane Richard.

Multiple reports over the last few days have named Christel Heydemann as the new favourite to take the top job at the French incumbent, and that her appointment could be formalised at the end of this week. Heydemann currently serves as vice president of Europe for France-based energy and industrial multinational, Schneider Electric.

According to a BFM Business report (in French) on Friday, Alexis Kohler, general secretary of the Élysée Palace, recently met with Heydemann and the other nominees, Verizon’s chief revenue officer Frank Boulben, and Orange’s finance chief Ramon Fernandez. An unnamed source cited in the report claims that following the meeting, the Élysée said Heydemann would be their preferred choice of candidate. The development comes not long after the finance ministry also backed Heydemann. Stephane Richard is said to be a Heydemann supporter too.

The report said Orange’s board was due to vote on the appointment today, but that meeting has now been pushed back to Friday.

The preference for Heydemann represents a blow to Boulben, who was the favourite of Orange’s own selection committee, making him – up until now – the frontrunner. Le Figaro reported on Saturday (also in French) that Boulben has now withdrawn from the running. That assertion was backed up on Monday in a separate BFM report that published snippets of an email sent by Boulben to the selection committee, in which he heavily criticised the government for undermining the selection process and his candidacy.

“I regret that French politics has again interfered in the governance of Orange, an international private company, through public speaking,” he said, according to the report.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the French government holds a 23 percent stake in Orange, so it does have a say on who it thinks should run the company. Boulben’s ire – which is not unreasonable, to be fair – stems from the assertion that the government has deliberately messed with the selection process via tactical leaks to journalists to ensure it gets its own way.

There is no word yet on what the other potential successor to Richard, Ramon Fernandez, makes of all this, but it must have become patently clear to him by now that he’s not getting Richard’s soon-to-be-vacant office.

If, as expected, Heydemann does get voted in, she will be the first external candidate in 20 years to be appointed CEO of Orange. The last time that happened was when former Technicolor chief Thierry Breton took over from Michel Bon in 2002, back when Orange – then trading as France Telecom – was the most heavily-indebted company in the world.

Breton was succeeded in 2005 by Didier Lombard, whose tenure was forever tarnished by a tragic spate of employee suicides. In 2019, a court issued a landmark ruling that the deaths were linked to the upheaval wrought by Lombard’s restructuring plan, and he was sentenced to a year in prison.

Current CEO and chairman Richard brought about a period of relative peace and prosperity to Orange, pushing the telco beyond connectivity and into a broader field of digital services. However, he stepped down after his past caught up with him last November, when a French appeals court partially overturned a 2019 ruling that cleared him of his involvement in the 2008 Tapie fraud case.

Employees and shareholders alike will doubtless be hoping his successor – and it looks likely to be Heydemann – will be in for a smoother ride.


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