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How the “electric fairy” Clara Lejeune-Gaymard helped transform General Electric

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Clara Lejeune-Gaymard

Clara Lejeune-Gaymard

Clara Lejeune-Gaymard, has, she says, had enough of “French-bashing”, the common complaint certain sections of the French population have against the rest of the world. But the woman the respected French business newspaper Libération dubs the “electric fairy” has also faced criticism from within. She has been accused by her compatriots of allowing the Americans to “steal” one of France’s industrial jewels, due to her leading role in General Electric’s acquisition of the power business arm of French industrial giant Alstom.

Gaymard is clear, however, that she is an ambassador for France on the industrial stage, and says her policy will always be one of alliance. As she told Forbes: “I was hired [by General Electric] because of my experience in government affairs; I was bringing something that they were missing.”

That lack of understanding of the European, and particularly the French, way of doing things had become painfully obvious to the US conglomerate when their earlier plan to merge with Honeywell was blocked by the EU’s monopolies commission. So when the power giant set its sight on Alstom, they also set their sights on Gaymard, not least because of her extensive network of contacts. It was Gaymard’s job to ensure that the deal – GE’s largest ever – followed a smoother path than the Honeywell experience.

It was not without its challenges. At a glitzy state dinner in Washington in 2014 she just happened to have a chat with the French industry minister Arnaud Montebourg. She came away with the impression that he was in favour of a GE approach while in fact he was much keener on Siemens. But in September, after complicated negotiations which included selling some of the French company’s turbine assets to Italian rival Ansaldo Energia, the massive 12.4 billion euro partial takeover finally won EU approval. Having already passed the hurdle of US anti-trust regulation, the deal significantly transforms the European power marketplace and will allow GE to embark on a major cost-cutting exercise.

A lady with no equal

It was a series of circumstances that led Gaymard into the arms of the Americans in the first place. As the President of GE France and of the Women’s Forum for Business and Society, among her many other job titles, admitted in a recent interview with French magazine Closer: “No French patron of the CAC 40 (a benchmark index of the French stock exchange) would have dared to hire a small blonde woman, married to a former government minister who had resigned.”

She might have added that that woman has nine children and the main reason for her husband’s resignation was the fact that 600 square metre grace and favour apartment in central Paris needed to house the family had become a serious bone of contention in political circles. But Americans think differently and in 2006, a year after her husband’s departure from office, General Electric was delighted to take her on as head of their French arm from her former job as president of the government agency Invest in France.

During her time as president of GE France the company has forged links with many other French household names including Total, GDF-Suez, EDF, Sanofi and Air France. Much of this has been enabled by Gaymard’s winning charm – and her address book. The President and Director General of Total, Christophe de Margerie, says that “Clara has no equal when it comes to organising meetings, for which read dinners. If there is someone who I want to invite, I call her and she arranges it.”

“Swiggant comme une gamine”

To build up those enviable contacts Gaymard followed the classic French establishment route of attending ENA, the Ecole Normale d’Administration, with the encouragement of her then boss Jacques Chirac, Mayor of Paris and later President of the Republic. Here she met her future husband Hervé, whom she married in 1986, giving birth to her first child, the imaginatively named Philothée, the following year (the ninth of her six girls and three boys, Angelico, was born in 1998).

The pair did a stint in Cairo before returning to France where she entered the Ministry of Finance. But if she has worked her way through the government ranks, she is by no means the typical bureaucrat. The daughter of a Danish mother of whom she has said “nothing was ever complicated” and the renowned French scientist Professor Jerome Lejeune who discovered the trisomy 13 gene responsible for Down’s syndrome, she was brought up in an open, liberal atmosphere, which now reigns in her own complicated family life.

How does she do it? “There’s no mystery,” she says. “I’ve always had three drivers in my life: the desire to learn, the taste for travel, and the family.” Children and job apart, she has also found time to write three novels on the themes of “happiness and joy”.

All who know this powerful woman describe her as a bundle of energy; she gets up at 5am and has a self-imposed rule not to get into the office before seven, travelling through the streets of Paris on her bike – or even her roller skates – often with the Rolling Stones blaring through her headphones. She likes, she says, to be “swiggant comme une gamine” – swinging like a teenager – to their music. She probably has Mick Jagger’s number, or maybe Keith Richards’. They’d certainly appreciate her style, for conventional she is not.