Taxi! For Nöel Forgeard

Well, it looks like one of the questions from this post may have been answered indirectly. It now matters little whether or not the Clearstream affair is ever cleared up, as some of the people most responsible for it have anyway been disgraced. Since the last post, the only real news on the Clearstream story is that the allegations by General Rondot (that the government wanted him to investigate Nicolas Sarkozy for partisan reasons) were confirmed, by the top EADS executive Jean-Louis Gergorin, although he continues to deny being the corbeau.

However, the Clearstream story has largely been overtaken by events. One explanation for it was that it began as part of a scheme by a faction at the huge Franco-German aircraft and armaments company in order to prevent the head of Thales (another French defence contractor, specialising in electronics and shipbuilding) from becoming the boss. Their alternative candidate was almost certainly the choice of the French government, being a personal friend and political compadre of Jacques Chirac, one Nöel Forgeard. This chap had a good claim to the job anyway, having run the EADS division that builds the Airbus civilian airliners and culminated his time there by overtaking Boeing in sales for the first time and seeing the A-380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft, to its first flight. He also promised to maintain French primacy of influence, which is important as EADS’s structure gives it two co-chiefs, in practice one French and one German.

Forgeard today resigned in disgrace as chief executive. Like Clearstream, it was an overdetermined event. For a start, there was the lingering scandal-Gergorin being an old pal of his. But there was also trouble at the mill. The A380’s delivery timetable has slipped after problems were discovered with the electrical systems of several airframes, beginning with serial no. 013, and requiring a temporary halt to work at station 40 on the assembly line. This has caused trouble with some of the buyers, who have threatened to invoke penalty clauses.

But that wasn’t the real problem. It flies, after all, and has passed its safety certification (something which escapes those journalists who have been claiming Boeing’s Dreamliner project has overtaken it – the 787 has, I think, yet to fly let alone be type-approved). The real problem was that Forgeard exercised his stock options immediately before the public heard about the cock-up on station 40. He denied vigorously that he knew of the problem, without credibility – the director of production for the A380, Jean-Claude Schoepf, had informed union representatives of the problem as early as the 24th of February. This perceived dishonesty, stacked atop the Clearstream muck, left him shaky, and Jacques Chirac’s response didn’t help. Chirac (and presumably the government) wanted to replace him with the current head of the French railways as a new single chief.

Enter Angela Merkel. The German government wanted, rather than more centralisation, to see more EADS stock in free float. Putting the SNCF in charge, possibly sensible given their reputation, was not going to grip them. But – without a major change in EADS’s charter – sacking Forgeard would require the German co-chief to step down too. It now seems that the Germans are willing to accept the railroad tycoon, Louis Gallois, instead of Forgeard, even at the price of dropping Gustav Humbert – the new head of the Airbus division – in favour of an exec from Saint-Gobain. This means, of course, that there is a need for new German appointments.

The Germans have therefore thrown out the bums, got rid of responsibility for the trouble at Airbus, replaced the French co-CEO with someone apparently competent, and kept their own rights of appointment. Advice: don’t get into an argument with Angie Merkel. It’s like the EU budget all over again, when she essentially pushed Tony Blair out of the presidency chair to close the deal.

Meanwhile, a French government commission on official secrecy is said (by the Canard Enchainé) to have advised the Ministry of National Defence to open the files seized from Rondot on the rest of Clearstream, including the infamous investigation by Gilbert Flam into Chirac’s alleged bank accounts in Japan. It doesn’t end for the General, either. He’s being sued by Carlos “The Jackal” from his prison cell, over his arrest in the Sudan back in 1994. Rondot traced him to a clinic there where he was undergoing medical treatment, had him arrested and flown to Paris in a sack, where he went on trial for various terrorist acts. Now, after Rondot spoke about the – well – very extraordinary rendition in an interview with Le Figaro on his retirement, he’s suing. Cheeky old bugger.