'Bon temps' over for Mr Bon

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Hard on the heels of the Vivendi Universal débâcle, now France Telecom has sunk to its knees in a feverish financial collapse. We profile the controversial career of FT boss Michel Bon, who left with "a knife in my heart", and a mountain of debt in his footsteps.

Many European telecoms chiefs had trod the path to their boardroom doors before Michel Bon attended France Telecom's crucial crisis meeting on the evening of 12 September, but the losses and debts he leaves behind after seven years of expansion, backed by the majority state shareholder, dwarf all others.

Just recently, the current minister of social affairs, François Fillon, who was the sponsoring minister for Bon in his 1995 nomination, reaffirmed his confidence in the man, saying he "had led France Telecom remarkably."

Until now one of the miraculous survivors of the telecoms bubble collapse, he has finally bowed out under the weight of France Telecom's latest results: a new record loss of EUR 12.2 billion (USD11.8 billion) in the first half of 2002 and a total debt of EUR 69.7 billion.

"I leave here with a knife in my heart just as the company posts the best operating results of its history and of all major European operators," Bon, 59, said in a message to staff.

President of France Telecom for the last seven years, Bon left his post under pressure, but is to continue until a successor is found. The French state partly privatised France Telecom in 1997 but still retains 55.4 percent of the group.

"This company gave me the best hours of my professional life. I am deeply indebted to each of you. I am proud of what you have done, I am proud of you," he said with a strained voice, addressing the group's staff after announcing his resignation.

Although France Telecom announced, at the tense 12 September board meeting, that first half operating profit had risen by a better-than-expected 17.3 percent to EUR 3.19 billion, it nonetheless now finds itself in dire financial straits.

Last year, the French telecommunications giant had already posted a record loss of EUR 10 billion. "The large size of these losses led me to offer my resignation," said Bon, whose departure had been rumoured for weeks.

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