FRANCE FIRES TELECOM CHIEF, CITING HIS ZEAL FOR CHANGE

FRANCE FIRES TELECOM CHIEF, CITING HIS ZEAL FOR CHANGE

The French government this week fired the chairman of telecommunications group France Telecom, Marcel Roulet, because he wanted to overhaul the company too quickly.

But Telecommunications Minister Francois Fillon told a news conference that the government and the company would nevertheless be ready for the Jan. 1, 1998, deadline for total liberalization of European telecommunications."I plan to give France Telecom the structures and the means to meet the competition in good conditions," he said Wednesday, just before announcing the resignation of Mr. Roulet, 62, and the appointment of banker Francois Henrot, 46.

Mr. Fillon said he would present plans for a regulatory framework for telecommunications at the end of September and expected it to become law in April. He said he wanted the state-owned company to change into a normal stock company but said the state would keep a majority.

He said current employees would maintain their status as civil servants. However, the powerful Sud union of telecommunications and postal workers said it would do all it could to torpedo the government's privatization plans.

Mr. Fillon indicated a sale of a minority stake in the company could happen as soon as 1996 or in 1997, in light of the enormous investments France Telecom was facing because of technical challenges.

He has the daunting task of engineering a revolution in the way France Telecom operates, while at the same time keeping its 154,000 employees happy and meeting European deadlines for liberalization and competition.

Adding to this precarious balancing act, France needs to quickly obtain European Union approval for a joint venture with Deutsche Telekom and U.S. permission for a deal to take a joint 20 percent stake in Sprint Corp.

"France Telecom (now) has to operate as if there is no monopoly anymore . . . The tariff structure has to change . . . The company has to be closer to the region and closer to the client," Mr. Fillon said while outlining Mr. Henrot's task.

To appease U.S. critics such as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt and officers from AT&T Corp. and British Telecom, Mr. Fillon is willing to install an independent regulator to ensure rules of fair competition are followed.

That "is at the heart of our reflections," he said.

Mr. Roulet, who has led France Telecom and its predecessor bureaucracy since 1986, changed the firm around to a near-private company. He wanted a quick change in the legal status, but Mr. Fillon said he had misjudged his staff's willingness to accept this.