European Comment: Six pilots in search of an aircraft

The Franco-German controlling shareholders of EADS are staging their own version of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. At the latest count, there are at least six potential contenders to replace Noël Forgeard as head of Airbus.

Time is pressing. If Mr Forgeard is to take up, as planned, his new job as French co-chief executive of EADS in May, his Airbus successor must be named by Easter.

Yet the core shareholders are still struggling to reach agreement and in so doing are destabilising the European aircraft manufacturer.

The issue is complicated by German insistence that the job form part of a wider package of nominations. Top of the list is the appointment of a new boss for the EADS defence business to replace Thomas Enders, soon to become the group's German co-chief executive.

The affair involves a delicate balancing act to satisfy Franco-German sensitivities shaken by Mr Forgeard's recent power play. The Germans still oppose the French favourite: Airbus veteran Gérard Blanc. Fabrice Brégier, Eurocopter boss, is a strong contender, but considered too young by some. So is Charles Champion, A380 programme manager. Gustav Humbert, Airbus deputy, is back in the race, while Airbus star salesman John Leahy, currently being courted by rival Boeing, remains a compelling candidate.

Another option is to appoint an outsider such as Louis Gallois, current head of the French railways. His credentials are impeccable: a former chairman of the Snecma aero-engine group and Aerospatiale, he also sits on the EADS board.

Loft story

Were it not so serious, the saga over French finance minister Hervé Gaymard's housing arrangements could form the basis of a reality television show. Since the affair first erupted last week, not a day has gone by without new revelations on the Gaymard family's lifestyle and opposition calls for his resignation.

So far Mr Gaymard is sticking to his job. He claims the continued support of President Jacques Chirac and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, prime minister. He insists he is as "clean as a freshly minted coin". Perhaps not the best metaphor.

But then, Mr Gaymard seems to have made one public relations blunder after another. First he said he was too busy to flat hunt and was not aware of the €14,000 ($18,400) rent, paid by the state, for his vast apartment. Alain Juppé, former prime minister, said much the same thing in defence of his alleged role in an earlier scandal. Mr Gaymard also failed to disclose he already owned a Paris flat, which he rents out. It was never going to be easy to take over from aspiring presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy. But the new clean-cut finance minister had made a solid start. Now, he has become an embarrassment for a government facing growing labour unrest and worried the European Constitution vote in May could turn into a referendum on its domestic record.

Mr Gaymard will ultimately have to go. Hopefully his successor - France's ninth finance minister in a decade - will last a little longer.

Nuclear tactics

For industrial and political reasons, the partial privatisation of the world's leading nuclear energy company risks being delayed. Originally planned for early summer, Paris is now having second thoughts on the long awaited Areva public offering.

The industrial rationale for postponing the state-owned company's IPO is to allow Areva to enter the Australian takeover battle for the world's biggest uranium mine. The French group has been approached to act as a white knight by WMC, the Australian group currently trying to fend off a hostile bid by Xstrata, the Swiss mining company.

Areva is considering offering more than €1bn for the Australian group's uranium assets. Paris is anxious to see the dust settle on the takeover battle before considering launching an IPO. The political reasoning is more tortuous. Some government members and large banks are still manoeuvring to combine Areva and Alstom to secure the long-term future of the former French engineering champion. In the unlikely event such a move receives the blessings of Brussels, it would scupper any chance of an IPO.

There is another more interesting option. Germany's Siemens has long eyed Alstom, but its advances have so far been frustrated by French opposition. This seems to be changing. A deal with Siemens would be a neat way to patch up Franco-German relations following heavy-handed French intervention in the Sanofi-Aventis merger and at EADS. It would also finally allow the Areva IPO to move forward.

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