French media magnate Arnaud Lagardere stayed away from his own election as the next chairman of Airbus parent EADS (>> EADS) on Thursday, throwing an unexpected false note into a carefully arranged handover of control at Europe's top aerospace group.
Lagardere, whose media group owns 7.5 percent of the world's second largest aerospace company, failed to show up at a shareholders' meeting due to confirm his appointment as chairman under a politically sensitive pact between France and Germany.
"Mr Lagardere gave his excuses last night and said he had important matters to do. I am sorry he is not here," outgoing chairman Bodo Uebber told the meeting in Amsterdam.
The surprise twist follows some delicate sparring over the control of one of Europe's most prestigious groups and threatens to sour efforts to establish a reputation as a routine company free of complex shareholding arrangements and in-fighting.
Although EADS shares were the strongest blue-chip performers in France in 2011 and rose further this year on the back of a boom in jetliner orders, any sign of a return to past management tensions risks sapping investor confidence, analysts said.
"These things can't be ignored, even if we don't know the reason for it, the nuance is still noted," Jefferies aerospace analyst Sandy Morris said, referring to Lagardere's absence.
EADS was created by a merger of French, German and Spanish interests in 2000. It was originally run on strict power-sharing lines between Paris and Berlin but it was destabilized by severe internal quarrels over delays to its A380 jet in 2005 and 2006.
Lagardere's absence is likely to be seen at least in part as a snub to outgoing French chief executive Louis Gallois, with whom Lagardere is said to have clashed indirectly during a delay over agreement on the management handover earlier this year.
French representatives lobbied in vain earlier this year to shift two key posts from German to French hands, a move which some company watchers also identified as part of a coded effort by Gallois to retain influence, and possibly step in as chairman should Lagardere decide to step back from running the group.
Gallois, an industrialist and former railways boss who oversaw a reduction in Franco-German tensions in EADS, always denied any intention to remain beyond the end of his mandate.
A spokesman for Lagardere said he had not wanted to interfere with Uebber's last appearance as EADS chairman.
"We don't want to interfere with this last day in any way," he said. Lagardere however has a wide role on the board, representing the combined interests of the French state and his own company under the pact between core shareholders.
The fate of Lagardere (>> LAGARDERE S.C.A.) media company's 7.5 percent stake has been a source of unease surrounding EADS, which is governed by a delicate pact between core French and German shareholders including Lagardere, the French government which owns 15 percent, and Germany's Daimler (>> Daimler AG) on 15 percent.
In a newspaper interview in January, Lagardere said, "If I am taking on the chairmanship of EADS, it is in a spirit of responsibility."
It is not the first time that Lagardere's conduct as a manager has drawn attention. A video of him and his much younger girlfriend went viral on the Internet last summer, raising eyebrows among the conservative French business elite.
More recently, earlier this month, he told Lagardere shareholders at his own company's annual meeting that his girlfriend, Jade Foret, was expecting a child and that they were to be married.
Lagardere was one of 7 board members absent from the annual meeting, drawing the ire of some of the shareholders present.
"I deeply regret the absence of the board members," individual shareholder Viviane Neiter told the meeting.
Shareholders representing 11.6 percent of shares present at the AGM symbolically voted against Lagardere's re-appointment to the board, but this was still guaranteed to pass easily because of the weight of block votes in a core shareholder pact.
One board member making a debut appearance was former European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet.
The arrival of one of Europe's key architects, credited with building an armor of credibility around the region's single currency, underscores how EADS remains an industrial pillar of the French-German relationship.
But it could lead to a clash of views after EADS leaders openly challenged the euro's strength in recent years and urged monetary authorities to pay more heed to exporters.
Trichet's nomination by the French government coincides with a sharp weakening of the euro due to the region's debt crisis.
Trichet declined to comment on the euro or the European crisis while EADS said it had no exposure to turmoil in Greece.
Alongside Lagardere's official appointment as chairman, EADS also confirmed the expected appointment of Airbus chief Tom Enders as its chief executive, succeeding Gallois.
Enders' number two, Fabrice Bregier, was named as the new CEO of Airbus, the world's largest commercial jetliner maker.
Airbus has seen its revenues rise solidly in recent years but lags its main rival Boeing (>> The Boeing Company) in terms of operating margin. "We will aim to grow both the top line and bottom line," Enders told the shareholder meeting.
(Additional reporting by Cyril Altmeyer and Christian Plumb; editing by James Jukwey)
By Tim Hepher