AT FRANCE'S STATE-OWNED enterprises, boardroom coups are nothing new. Recent upheavals at France Telecom, though, are exacting a heavy price. Until the chaos ends, France will slip behind as other nations prepare phone utilities for 1998's Europewide deregulation.

This summer, Post & Telecommunications Minister Franois Fillon managed to depose Telecom President Marcel Roulet, who pushed for rapid privatization. Successor Franois Henrot, president of Compagnie Bancaire, resigned in protest after Fillon promised union leaders a delay in selling a minority stake to investors. To repair the damage, Prime Minister Alain Juppe quickly named yet another new president: the pro-privatization Michel Bon, former chief of retailer Carrefour.

Unions fear that a sale would bring in stockholders eager to end job guarantees and automatic pay hikes. A hoped-for public offering first slated for next year will now be delayed until 1997, at the earliest. By then, alas, stock markets throughout Europe will be flooded with $30 billion in offerings from Germany's Deutsche Telekom and others.

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