Richard to remain CEO of Orange, despite fraud investigation

Last week, Stéphane Richard was put under investigation in a case of suspected organised fraud. The board of the telco has announced it intends to keep him as CEO of the company.

There is to be no change at the top of France's biggest mobile operator: Stéphane Richard will remain CEO of the Orange group, the company has confirmed.

In a press release issued on Monday, the operator said that "the board has decided to reassert its full confidence in Stéphane Richard and his ability to effectively meet the numerous challenges facing Orange with the same energy as ever in the best interests of the company, its employees, its customers and its shareholders." 

Earlier this month, Richard was placed under formal investigation on suspicion of organised fraud, after spending 48 hours in custody. Formal investigations in France take place when there is thought to be evidence of a crime, but do not automatically guarantee that any charges will be brought.

The Orange CEO was Christine Lagarde's chief of staff back in 2007, when the IMF chief was France's minister for the economy. The organised fraud investigation is related to an arbitration process that took place in October 2007 in order to settle the Bernard Tapie-Crédit Lyonnais case.

The roots of the case go back to the early 1990s, when the French bank Crédit Lyonnais went bankrupt. The bank had been involved in the sale of Adidas, a business Tapie had been a major shareholder in. Tapie believed he had been cheated in the sale, and filed a case against the Consortium de réalisation (CDR), an organisation set up by the French state back in 1995 to discharge all the legal liabilities of Crédit Lyonnais post-bankruptcy.

Despite many years of legal proceedings, the case remained unsettled. Tapie and the CDR subsequently agreed to an arbitration process which saw the businessman awarded €403m in 2008, a sum that critics believe was too high.

The organised fraud investigation aims to discover whether Tapie was given favourable treatment having been a high profile supporter of France's then president Nicholas Sarkozy.

The investigation will in particular have to determine the exact role played by Richard in the case, with he and Lagarde disputing who was the driving force behind the arbitration. Richard recently claimed that Lagarde had agreed to the arbitration process, while Lagarde said that Richard "appeared to firmly favour arbitration". 

Two unions, Sud and CGT, have called for Richard to be dismissed, the former stating that "being put under investigation on grounds of organised fraud is not compatible with running a business".  However, the CFE-CGC/Unsa union called for him to remain CEO of the group "with respect to the presumption of innocence" with fellow union the CFDT also taking the same stance.

Pierre Moscovici, France's current minister of the economy, stated in a television interview that, as an Orange shareholder, the state backed keeping Richard on, and that it had to think of the "company's interests", given that the case doesn't relate to Richard's role with Orange.

In the meantime, Orange board member Bernard Dufau will take responsibility for ensuring that the ongoing legal investigation doesn't prevent Richard from effectively running the company.