By Mathieu Rosemain and Emmanuel Jarry
PARIS (Reuters) – Orange <ORAN.PA> chief executive Stephane Richard will learn on Tuesday whether he has been convicted or cleared of misconduct in a French fraud trial which will decide his future as head of the country’s biggest telecoms operator.
Richard, who denies any wrongdoing, faces charges of complicity in fraud and misuse of public funds for allegedly misinforming and disobeying the then French finance minister Christine Lagarde in 2008, when he was her chief of staff.
“I vigorously deny the charges against me and remain convinced that justice will recognise my innocence,” Richard, 57, told French newspaper Le Monde on Saturday.
Richard, if found guilty by French judges at a court in Paris, faces three years in jail over a disputed 400 million euro (£358 million)compensation payment made by the state to French tycoon Bernard Tapie.
“This is the cross I’m carrying. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Richard said of the 11-year-old allegations, which date from when he was working for Lagarde, who went on to become head of the International Monetary Fund and is now set to replace Mario Draghi as European Central Bank President.
Richard, who was given a third four-year mandate as Orange CEO last year, played down his alleged role in the case and said that his record as Orange CEO should be considered because he managed to improve the company’s financials and morale
If convicted, Richard could also be ousted by Orange’s board, under a rule of conduct stipulated by the French government, potentially triggering a race to replace him.
French news outlets have said that Orange’s chief financial officer Ramon Fernandez, the group’s head for French activities Fabienne Dulac and Orange Spain CEO Laurent Paillassot are among the potential contenders to replace Richard if he leaves.
Richard has the support of Orange’s leading unions, some of which are represented on its board, after improving its results in the fiercely competitive French market and restoring labour relations which were shaken by a series of suicides.
PLEA TO LE MAIRE
Orange’s CFE-CGC union called on Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in a statement on Sunday not to take any rushed decision on Richard after Tuesday’s French court verdict.
It also asked for a meeting with a minister, reminding the government that its employees hold 5% of Orange’s shares and 9% of its voting rights, making them the second-biggest investor after the French state, which owns a combined 23% stake.
But Le Maire repeated the government position that bosses of state-controlled companies should quit if convicted of a crime.
“We have set rules, they are clear, and they will be respected,” he told reporters at a weekend economics and business conference in southern France.
The prosecutor in the case has said 18 months of the 3-year sentence should be suspended, and that Richard should be barred from working in the public service for five years.
(Reporting by Mathieu Rosemain and Emmanuel Jarry; Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Alexander Smith)