For Total, the keyword today is: continuity. The Group wants to stress that the plane crash near Moscow, which claimed the life of its chief executive Christophe de Margerie is an individual accident, and that the rest of its leadership is not affected. The objective is to reassure. But in the Middle East, where Christophe de Margerie made his international debut, succession is a crucial issue that already raises many questions on the Group’s approach, particularly in the Gulf.
Margerie will likely be succeeded by a cadre from within the Group. Among the names circulating in Paris: Yves-Louis Darricarrère, Total’s upstream president, Philippe Boisseau, president of Supply-Marketing and head of New Energies, Patrick Pouyanné, head of Refining & Chemicals and Arnaud Breuillac, head of Exploration & Production. But Margerie’s absence is in itself a major change.
“C’est au Moyen-Orient que j’ai éclos”
A remarkable figure, Christophe de Margerie embodied Total in the Middle East. This is how he was perceived by many of his interlocutors in the region. Margerie possessed a deep understanding of the region and quickly became Total’s “Mr. Middle East”. He was appointed head of Total E&P Middle-East in 1995, but he established and nurtured his relations in the region well before that, owing to a unique character that responded exactly to the expectations and needs of his Arab interlocutors. Those who appreciated him went as far as confusing his person and the company he was running.
Margerie disputed the many objections the oil industry was faced with, including the exploitation of shale oil, heavy oil, dealing with Iran, and more recently the standoff with Moscow over the Ukrainian crisis, which he dubbed the “new Berlin Wall”.
He believed in Iraq’s potential but enflamed Bagdad by signing a deal with Kurdistan. He expanded Total’s presence in the Gulf and knew how to manage rivalries. On Iran, he saw no reason to keep Tehran outside of the system. His now famous quote – “When it becomes legal to work in Iran and contractual terms are satisfactory, I don’t see why Total would deprive itself of the possibility to beat out its Anglo-Saxon competitors in Iran” – was probably directed more at French authorities than at Anglo-Saxon competitors.
In many of his bold statements and actions, he pushed France into new territories French authorities did not dare venture into. For France, maybe more so than for Total, these are the qualities needed to fill Christophe de Margerie’s shoes. If his successor is unable to project a similar character, and a similar ease in dealing with Middle Eastern partners, he will have no choice but to double efforts to preserve the Group’s position in the region.