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Business

GE launches ‘Made in France’ charm offensive for Alstom

© Photo: AFP

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2014-06-18

The French government claims it is neutral in the fierce bidding war pitting General Electric (GE) and Siemens for engineering company Alstom’s energy division. But as the stakes rise, GE is working hard to get French public opinion on its side.

President François Hollande and French ministers on Tuesday welcomed representatives of Siemens at the Elysée palace, where the German giant presented its new 14.2-billion-euro buyout offer for Alstom’s energy assets.

GE was not waiting idly by as Siemens and partner Mitsubishi unveiled a proposal that now surpasses its own existing tender by 1.8 billion euros.

Instead, the US firm had prepared for Siemens’ rendezvous by taking out a full-page advertisement in popular newspapers this week pledging to create jobs in France and help the country remain a technology leader if it wins Alstom’s energy business.

“Tomorrow will be Made in France” GE’s print advert in French said, repeating the catchphrase at the heart of a huge PR campaign that is becoming increasingly visible across the country. The newspaper spread is in fact just the tip of the charm offensive iceberg.

The meddling minister

Managers at Alstom – one of France’s biggest private sector employers in France with around 18,000 workers – nearly brokered a deal with GE in April before French Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg angrily stepped in and encouraged Siemens to make a rival bid.

The French press reported that Montebourg was livid for having been left out of the discussions that could see a key technology sector player in France uprooted to the United States; a company that, among other things, produces the turbines needed to run France’s many nuclear power plants and its navy’s war ships.

Facing widespread skepticism of US multinationals, and fear that the takeover would ship industry jobs across the Atlantic or elsewhere, GE appears to be relying on the ‘Made in France’ campaign to reassure not just Montebourg, but ordinary citizens.

Visible on all fronts

Newspaper adverts similar to those that surfaced this week began appearing in major national newspapers, including the business-friendly Le Figaro and the more left-leaning Libération, in May.

The message is clear: GE has already been doing business in France for generations, employing French people in high-skill technology jobs. The Alstom takeover will only encourage that relationship.

Around the same time, GE France’s Twitter account suddenly began firing messages that were very different from those it sent in the past. Sporadic posts that included fun-facts about patents have given way to a steady flow of messages about its workforce and activity in France.

“Did you know? The largest gas turbines in the world are built in Belfort, in France. #GE #MadeInFrance” one such message said in reference to the US company’s factories in eastern France. It was accompanied by a close-up of a smart factory worker wielding a ratchet ring spanner and chic protective goggles.

This week, as France and the world tunes in for the World Cup, it has unleashed a series of touching television adverts commercials featuring young French engineers who love working for GE in Belfort.

The spots cleverly touch on yet another French fear, namely that after years of near economic stagnation, the country’s brightest talents are seeking their fortunes in Britain, Germany or in a host of emerging economies far from French shores.

GE’s is trying to score a goal by convincing the French it’s doing its part in plugging the brain drain.

Secret weapon in France

If GE succeeds in winning the Alstom bid, it will be its most important buyout to date, and a personal victory for Clara Gaymard (pictured left in main), who has been the head of GE France since 2006.

Gaymard, 54, has a long career in economic diplomacy, and was battle-hardened in the difficult years following France’s refusal to join the US war in Iraq in 2003.

Her job at the time for the state run Invest in France Agency (AFII, its acronym in French) was in part to convince American businessmen that it was not unpatriotic to drink wine from Bordeaux and continue to trade with France.

For the past eight years, her job description has been turned on its head, consisting mainly of keeping clients and leaders in France happy. More fundamentally, her task is to convince the French that GE is no foreign threat – a charm offensive that business leaders say has worked brilliantly.

In fact, GE’s public relations push is not a hasty, last-ditch effort to win the Alstom bid. It’s the last charge in a patient offensive most people in France failed to see coming, until now.

Date created : 2014-06-18

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