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French government will support foreing Air France-KLM CEO, union against it

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Staff Writer | August 16, 2018
Ben Smith
Airline   Air Canada executive Ben Smith

The French government will support the appointment of Air Canada executive Ben Smith as the chief executive of Air France-KLM, a government source said on Thursday.

The nomination of Smith is expected to be proposed to a board meeting later in the day. The plan has already drawn criticism from Air France unions, which objected to the appointment of a non-French national as group CEO.

Recruiting a foreign boss is “inconceivable,” nine unions said Thursday before a board meeting at which Smith probably will be chosen as chief executive officer.

Labor groups will meet Aug. 27 to decide next steps in a long-running dispute over pay that’s led to 15 days of strikes and lost flights this year.

Smith, the No. 2 executive at Air Canada, will have to pursue cost cuts and operational improvements in a highly competitive industry while trying to rein in disgruntled unions, all with the French state looking over his shoulder.

The poisonous atmosphere should come as no surprise: In 2015, Air France workers protesting job cuts stormed offices near Charles de Gaulle Airport, ripping the shirts off two managers as they jumped a fence to escape. Previous CEO Jean-Marc Janaillac staked his job on an a staff vote on his plans - and lost.

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