By Emmanuel Jarry
PARIS (Reuters) – A French court on Tuesday cleared Orange <ORAN.PA> chief executive Stephane Richard of any wrongdoing in a fraud trial, clearing the way for him to remain at the helm of the country’s biggest telecom operator.
The court acquitted Richard of complicity in fraud for allegedly misinforming and disobeying France’s then finance minister Christine Lagarde in 2008, when he was her chief of staff.
Speaking to reporters inside the courthouse, Richard called the verdict an “immense relief”. Some of his close staff were in tears around him.
The French state is Orange’s biggest shareholder. In the run up to the ruling, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire had repeated the government position that bosses of state-controlled companies should quit if convicted of a crime.
Richard would have faced up to three years in jail if he had been found guilty of involvement in a disputed 400 million euro (£358 million) compensation payment made by the state to tycoon Bernard Tapie. Tapie who was also cleared of all charges.
Richard, who was given a third four-year mandate as Orange CEO last year, consistently denied the charges against him.
A popular chief executive, Richard is credited with improving revenues and market share in the fiercely competitive French telecoms market and restoring relations with unions.
(Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Additional reporting by Gwenaelle Barzic; Writing by Mathieu Rosemain; Editing by Richard Lough)