Ministers and MKs in Israel were up in arms Wednesday night over comments made by world Orange CEO Stephane Richard that he would end the company's franchise contract with Israel's Partner Communications “tomorrow” if he could get away with it.
“We want to terminate this and to fix this, we don’t want it,” Richard said at a press conference in Cairo. “In the existing contract, it gives us the option to terminate this without exposing this to a huge financial risk. If you were the CEO of this company you would act the same.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely late Wednesday convened a meeting of top officials to discuss a response. Hotovely, her office said, has discussed the matter with Israel's embassy in Paris, where Orange's world headquarters are located, and intends to issue an official statement later Wednesday or Thursday morning. Officials in the Ministry said they were “surprised” by the comments.
Meanwhile, angry responses from Israeli political leaders, and supporters of Israel in Europe, began pouring in. Yesh Atid head MK Yair Lapid said that Richard's comments were “chutzpah (arrogance) to the highest degree. I do not recall that he and his company had any problem taking money from Israel when prices were higher and the company was very profitable,” unlike now, when profits at Orange Israel have been hurt badly by the new competitors in the cellphone business.
“Israel is an island of sanity in the world's toughest neighborhood, and we are not prepared to be lectured on morality from Europeans who live a quiet, untroubled life,” he added.
Orange has been targeted by a BDS campaign in Egypt and several European countries. The company raised the ire of BDS groups who allege that the Israel operation provided free phone calls to IDF soldiers fighting in Gaza during last summer's Operation Protective Edge. In the past several weeks, large numbers of Egyptians have switched companies, putting a dent into the company's business there. Richard was in Cairo, among other reasons, to plead with customers not to leave the company.
The only reason Orange has not terminated its franchise contract with Partner – from which, Richard said, “we make very little money” - was to avoid litigation in Israeli courts. “"Sorry to say, but a dispute with Partner when you have zero legal position in Israeli courts is not something that I would recommend for my company. I am not going to pay hundreds of millions of euros only because I would have (to) take a risk, a huge risk, in terms of the penalties that we could have if we entered into this kind of brutal process,” he said.
In Israel, Orange is represented by Partner Communications, and Israeli-Chinese owned concern that franchises the name Orange. The Israeli company is completely independent of world Orange, company CEO Haim Romano said in response Wednesday to worried customers who flooded its phone centers with calls, seeking to find out if the company was dropping them as customers.
Romano, who said that he was fearful of a backlash among Israeli consumers against the Orange brand, said that his company had “almost nothing” to do with world Orange, other than to license its name. “We just recently renewed the contract, which is good for ten years. I was sorry to hear about Richard's comments, if indeed that is what he said. We reject these comments, and we intend to continue providing good service to Israelis,” he added.