Author: Angélique Fournier FM France – GEC Country Principal
“I assure you, they can’t strangle me in a dark corner!” said Anne Lauvergeon, the embattled boss of one of France’s largest nuclear enterprises, when told that some would not mind strangling her out in the open, she leaned back and laughed.
Known for her tenacity, she is one of the most prominent female executives in Europe, and one of the most independent minded, perhaps too much so for France’s male-dominated elite. In her professional career we find everything and its opposite. Great successes and bitter failures, master strokes and uncontrolled slips. This is probably what explains why some may be enthusiastic about her, praising her audacity and her intelligence unreservedly, while others hate her and criticize her authoritarianism and her side as an “iron lady“.
Anne Lauvergon was born on 2 August 1959 in Dijon (in the Côte-d’Or), her father taught history and her mother was a social worker. She studied at Lakanal high schools in Sceaux, Voltaire and La Source in Orléans, at the École Normale Supérieure and at the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines (ENSM) in Paris. Graduated in physical and engineering sciences from the Corps des Mines, in the 1980s she held positions of responsibility at Usinor, CEA, Regional Directorate for Industry and Research (Drire) Île-de-France, at the General Council of Mines and she held courses at the ENSM in Paris.
During the second presidential term of François Mitterrand (1990-91), she was placed in charge of the mission for the international economy and foreign trade. The following year, within a few months, a dual role was proposed: vice-secretary general and sherpa of the president, responsible for preparing international meetings (such as the G7 summit).
After the adventure at the Elysée she landed at the Lazard bank, the sanctuary of capitalism across the Alps. In this environment Anne Lauvergeon did not feel at ease with her, disturbed by that male chauvinist world that will accompany her throughout her career and with which she will have to live and fight.
Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn pushed her to lead the Compagnie Générale des Matériaux Nuclear (COGEMA), future Areva NC of which, in June 1999, she became CEO. In 2001 she built Areva as a merger of other French companies, a company for which she had global aspirations. From 2001 to 2011, she continued to lead Areva, becoming one of the most influential and feared public managers in France. Areva was engaged in nearly all aspects of nuclear energy, from mining and engineering to construction and recycling. At the command of Areva, Anne Lauvergeon has embodied for a whole decade the French nuclear industry, of which everyone knows the real and symbolic weight. Taking the lead of such a giant in such a sensitive industry brings enormous power, but also a great responsibility.
It is above all in the course of the twelve years in which she was at the head of Areva that Anne Lauvergeon choosed, through her conduct, to become the symbol of female power: her seductive but at the same time unassailable from a managerial point of view irritated French establishement on all fronts.
When french corporate heads opposed quotas and feminists and hampered gender equality, Anne Lauvergeon wanted to see more women on boards, stating:
“What will really matter is to change the roles of women within all companies. When we look at candidates with the same level of competencies, we’ll take the woman. If you want to be in the energy business, you need to reflect the societies as they are. And diversity is an added value to sell products.”
When Nicolas Sarkozy took over the French presidency in 2007, the disagreements between the latter and Anna Lauvergon were already well known. The proof of this conflicting relationship arose when Sarkozy, in 2011, refused to renew her mandate at the helm of Areva, preferring Luc Oursel to her.
There was talk of her as minister of industry, then as number one of the public investment bank, or as president of France Télécom. She was included for three consecutive years (2008, 2009, 2010) by Forbes magazine in the list of the most influential women in the world. Various assignments that ultimately prove one thing: Anne Lauvergon is an example of how a woman can do everything.
No women in France held equivalent positions, but to navigate and last in the political-industrial sphere, where lies, betrayals and the violence of low blows are commonplace, you need to be ready for anything. In the face of this “Atomic Anne”, as the American press had dubbed her, a character that she herself helped to shape, everyone seems obliged to take a position: we are for or against. Friend or foe. There are no half measures.