One last throw of the dice for angry French investors

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The Independent Online

So much for the entente cordiale. As the Queen yesterday ended her state visit to France by flying home in an Airbus from Toulouse, that other Franco-British enterprise, the Eurotunnel, limped into a new era of uncertainty at the hands of rebel shareholders led by a maverick businessman whose company car is a scooter.

After a raucous annual general meeting sensationally threw out the Eurotunnel board and its chief executive Richard Shirrefs, Nouvelles Frontières' founder Jacques Maillot promised a "new era" and rapid moves to cut the company's £6.4bn debt. He immediately promised founder shareholders that they would again be eligible for a return Channel crossing every year.

Bernard Chuzeville, a retired salesmman from Lyon, was pinning his hopes on the new leadership - along with many of the other 2,000 shareholders gathered in a huge convention centre near Paris. "I want something new. I have lost so much money that I am ready to gamble my remaining shares on the new team," he said.

M. Chuzeville, who first bought shares in 1995 and lost £6,000 on his Eurotunnel stocks, was typical of the French investors gathered yesterday. Few had been ruined by their Eurotunnel flutters but almost all had been first-time investors.

Catherine Cottong, a 56-year-old housewife, blamed the banks. "In 1987, right at the beginning of the share offer, I had 2,000 francs (£200) spare and my financial adviser at the Crédit Lyonnais said I should buy shares in Eurotunnel instead of putting the money into a savings account. I assumed that the tunnel was a great European project with government guarantees. I thought it could only be a safe bet. What I didn't realise was that the governments were washing their hands of it and that the banks were desperately looking for foolish people like me."

She became one of 700,000 "foolish" French shareholders (and about 100,000 Britons) - most of them with no investment experience, aged between 40 and 50, and beginning to plan for their retirements. Yesterday, somewhat older but none the wiser, they streamed into the convention centre wearing almost identical attire of loafers, carefully colour-matched accessories, waxed cotton jackets and carrying slim leather briefcases.

Many were philosophical. "At least I've got my health, that's the main thing," said retired teacher Jean Guillaume, 70. "The only solution, long-term, is government involvement. Voting for the rebels was an obvious choice. If they fail, the governments will be forced to step in," said M. Guillaume, who bought 2,000 shares at 35 francs (£3.50) in 1987. "It was the start of my personal portfolio and I briefly made a profit on it. I recently bought 2,000 more shares for 63 cents (50p)."

Eurotunnel values have recently been boosted as a result of a buying spree by fans of share tipster Nicolas Miguet who runs a popular magazine, Bourse Plus. Under the slogan "against the banksters", he led the rebellion into its head-on clash with the Eurotunnel board though he was not standing for the board last night.

M. Miguet - who earlier this year was found guilty by a French court of defaming Mr Shirrefs - hardly boosted the new Eurotunnel team's credibility when he suggested that "hundreds of new jobs would be created in the Pas-de-Calais" area, thanks to the creation of "welcome-to-France" packs sponsored by French tourism boards. These, he said would be distributed to tourists travelling through the Channel Tunnel and would raise "tens of billions of euros".

As the meeting continued into the night and a stream of shareholders put themselves forward for board membership, Mr Shirrefs stood by his "Galaxie" proposal - to save Eurotunnel by cutting access charges for rail operators and issuing new bonds with future tunnel revenues - but conceded: "Maybe it came a little late."

DIGGING FOR VICTORY - THE NEW TUNNEL TEAM

JACQUES MAILLOT

Aged 62, founded Nouvelles Frontières, the French tour operator, in 1967. It was sold in 2002 to the German group TUI.

M Maillot is also a board member at SNCF, the French train network, and at Companie des Alpes, a company which manages lift networks for ski slopes and resorts. M Maillot has been proposed to take over as non- executive chairman

JEAN-LOUIS RAYMOND

Aged 60. A graduate of l'Ecole Polytechnique, he is bilingual in French and English.

M Raymond was a former director of the Belgian retailer GIB-Brico. M. Raymond is seen as a business turnaround specialist after his stints at two French companies: Lesieur, which produces vegetable oils and soap, and the sugar refinery company Beghin Say.

M. Raymond will become Eurotunnel's new chief executive

HERVÉ HUAS

Aged 50, he is a banker who began his career at JP Morgan in Paris. He then moved to Toronto and New York before going to Brussels as a director and a board member of JP Morgan Europe. He later moved to Dexia Private Bank where he was president from 1998 to 2001. He is due to become finance director at Eurotunnel

PIERRE CARDO

Aged 54, M Cardo is a right-wing member of the French Parliament, as Deputy UMP of Yvelines, and he is also the mayor of the city of Chanteloup-les-Vignes. M Cardo has been an individual shareholder of Eurotunnel for several years and he is well placed to understand the grievances of small shareholders

ROBERT ROCHEFORT

Aged 48, is an economist and the director of Crédoc - the Centre for Research and Observation of Lifestyle Conditions. He is also administrator and member of the board of the Institut National de la Consommation (INC) and president of a working committee to deal with the future of the INC. He is a commentator on the Europe 1 radio station and a columnist forLa Croix newspaper

PHILIPPE VILLEMUS

Aged 42, began his career doing marketing for Colgate Palmolive before joining Mars in France. He ran the marketing campaign for the World Cup in France 1998, then worked for L'Oreal in Canada and became international general manager of Helena Rubinstein, based in Italy. He is outspoken about the mismanagement of commercial marketing for Eurotunnel

Research by Elizabeth Skerritt

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