Anne Lauvergeon–longed ranked by international publications as one of the most influential and powerful women in global business—will be replaced as chairman of Areva, the one-stop nuclear giant she created in 2001. Thursday’s announcement by France’s conservative government to part with Lauvergeon when her current contract expires June 29 comes at a critical time for Areva–and for the French state’s wider industrial strategy, built in large part on marketing its mighty nuclear sector abroad. Lauvergeon’s exit not only follows a protracted period of setbacks for Areva and its business partners, but also comes at a time when even France’s staunchly pro-nuclear public has joined many other nations in reconsidering the future nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe.Dubbed “Atomic Anne” by the international press, Lauvergeon was toasted as one of the most talented and capable women–make that people—in business over the past decade. Her crowning achievement: creating Areva in 2001 by merging a clutter of state-owned energy companies, and running the ensemble as the first vertically configured giant offering all aspects of nuclear power service—from reactor design and construction to waste treatment. Despite the lingering taint atomic power suffered following accidents like Three Mile Island, Lauvergeon succeeded in marketing the technology globally with spectacular success. She was aided in that by the French state’s own efforts to export nuclear energy activity it had enthusiastically embraced for its own power needs (and its own interest, as the main shareholder in Areva, in giving the company as much help in expanding abroad as possible).
Though Lauvergeon’s leftist political past (particularly as a key adviser to former Socialist President François Mitterrand) had long left her in the cross-hairs of France’s ruling right, her experience and strategic importance had allowed her to survive repeated, at times frontal challenges– until the Thursday’s announcement to replace her with fellow Areva executive Luc Oursel. Yet the decision wasn’t a political hit-job, however—or at least not entirely. The soaring price of oil and rising priorities to develop sustainable, relatively clean energy sources over the past decade helped the entire global nuclear sector to boom, and reinforced Areva’s position at the center of it. Yet several considerable setbacks provoked complaints Lauvergeon had failed to take full advantage of the roaring activity, and as such had compromised Areva’s position in it.
Construction of Areva’s newest-generation Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) in Finland has led to massive cost over-runs; another PWR being built on France’s Atlantic coast has also encountered problems and delays. Perhaps worse of all, in late 2009 a group of French companies lost its collective bid for a huge nuclear project in Abu Dhabi amid continued bickering between Lauvergeon and an executive with close ties to the rightist government who presides the state electric giant EdF. Though politicians had tolerated the battles Lauvergeon waged to defend Areva and her strategic vision as long as her business record remained strong, the company’s more mixed record of late apparently strengthened her detractors’ hands–and set the table for Thursday’s decision to part with her.
Despite the personal, business and political politics involved, the move is nevertheless a heady one by French authorities. In addition to Areva’s own problems, the entire nuclear sector has come under a cold, dark cloud of suspicion following the earthquake-provoked meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima rector. Germany has already said it will phase out nuclear activity, and just this week Italians voted to veto government plans to return to atomic power that ended among safety concerns in 1990. Even in the French—long proud of the energy independence nuclear technology provided—are starting to reconsider their position in the wake of Fukushima. Recent polls show that while very few people want nuclear plants shuttered any time soon, nearly two-thirds of public opinion favors a gradual phase-out of the technology over the next two decades. That’s seriously bad news for Areva—and one of the biggest challenges Oursel will inherit from Lauvergeon.