It’s a word that, if Renault uttered it, would shelve 45,000 jobs in Russia, Analysis & Opinion

After two months when the word was not spoken publicly by a Renault executive or written down on paper in an official communication, here it was thrown by Jean-Dominique Senard during a general meeting of the car manufacturer from his first minute to the table, bypassing the usual formalities. On Wednesday, May 25, shareholders, auditors, bailiffs, journalists, the entire Palais des Congrès in Paris, as well as those associated with streaming, were able to hear the chairman of the board of directors in front of the cameras. say a word ” war “. Usually, even if this happens less and less often, general meetings are not the place where the authorities go to share elements of the current context, these meetings are usually devoted to the assessment of the past year, but frankly unprecedented events are worth it. protocol deviations.

“Everyone is referring to the painful war in Ukraine that began in February last year, which was another test that added all the pockets of the crisis in 2021”, said Jean-Dominique Senard during this public meeting, during which everything is recorded, data is saved, minutes are kept. The sale of activities in Russia, announced a few days earlier, on May 16, untied the hands. Before that, Renault was talking only about “conflict”, more neutral, since it is not necessarily armed, which, like the “invasion”, could well concern only a piece of territory, without the idea of ​​u200bu200btotal aggression. Semantics has become a political issue, a camp marker. If the “special operation” used by Vladimir Putin is very ambiguous, then the “war” is also for them, since the Russian president has excluded it from the lexicon. Anyone who violates the law on “false information”, who uses this forbidden word, faces fifteen years in prison.

“Time to find a way out”

The Red Cross, whose neutrality is a fundamental principle, uses only “conflict”, which brought him protests and signs of outrage on Twitter. But nothing to do with the outrage caused in early March against the UN by an article in Irish Timesaccording to which the organization’s Global Communications Department sent an email to its employees with the subject “Ukraine Crisis Communications Guide” asking them not to characterize the events as ” war “recommending instead to use the terms “conflict” or“military offensive”. Faced with controversy, Melissa Fleming, head of UN communications, initially responded with a sort of denial, a little vague, pointing out in a tweet that there were no recommendations. “official” was made in that sense before pointing out, after being asked about any “unofficial” directive, that the email was indeed “sent by the local office without authorization” regarding “about 25 people”and that this “does not represent[ait] is not the official position of the organization. »

We at Renault make no secret of the fact that saying “conflict” and not “war” was a conscious choice, a necessity,” the manager admits. “time of negotiations, search for a way out” in Russia. Challenge number one was to secure a future for the 45,000 employees who worked at the Renault Russia plant near Moscow before the bankruptcy hit. Because, as CEO Luca di Meo has repeatedly said: a plant that is not working, that does not produce anything due to lack of spare parts, the entire supply chain, disrupted by sanctions, is only burning money. Bankruptcy was guaranteed if an agreement was not reached quickly. The negotiations were “intensive” but final because, according to Renault’s wishes “don’t insult the future”the manufacturer was also able to create the possibility of returning to Russia.

The war in Ukraine entered its hundredth day in early June. It rose, collapsed, oppressed, filled, and then turned into a routine. In the early days of Russian aggression, the word “war” scrolled on the black screens of the bible of financial news, i.e. Bloomberg, in more than 1,000 articles every hour every day, whereas today it is three times less. However, it is still one of the most used words. So inevitably, on the contrary, a company, whatever it is, which systematically, since the beginning of a large-scale military invasion of Ukraine, uses a term other than “war” is in great conflict.

The number of articles in which the word

The number of articles in which the word
The number of articles in which the word “war” appears daily on Bloomberg terminals | Photo Credit: Bloomberg.

“Conflict”, “crisis”, “situation”.

Since February 24, the start date of the offensive, corporate regulatory communications, by coincidence, have been happening at breakneck speed. The first half of the year is especially prosperous for large masses: in late February-early March, the last wagons of publications of accounts for 2021 go, just before the first counts of activity for the first quarter, intertwined with the period of general meetings. 38 Cac 40 companies have published their turnover and/or their results at the end of March, and 37 have held their general meetings of shareholders. During these meetings, which also added “investor days” for some of them in addition to a plethora of press releases, there was much talk of inflation, supply chain tensions, China’s re-containment, soaring oil prices, and “conflict” / “crisis” / “situation” in Ukraine, less often “war”, especially if the phrase is excluded from the account “talent war” that tech companies like Thales and Capgemini regret.

In the era of all-digital data science, it is easy, with the right tools, to go through the content of the meeting: what topics were discussed the most, how many times such and such a word was uttered, look! and if I type “Ukraine”, what noun comes first? If Air Liquide, Airbus, Axa, Bouygues, Legrand, Michelin, Publicis, Safran, Saint-Gobain, or Schneider Electric indiscriminately talk about “war” or “conflict”, jumping from one term to another, as we do with synonyms, others simply stick to the second. “War” is missing from Alstom, Worldline and Société Générale reports. With regard to the latter, which, like the other two, did not respond to our inquiries, the term “war” nonetheless appears in investment banking policy briefs sent to clients in the financial world.

In late March, the Chinese-British bank HSBC, which has a presence in Russia, caused controversy by removing references to the “war” in Ukraine from its analysts’ research publications. “The HSBC committees, which review all published research and client communications, have amended many of the reports to soften the wording used on this issue, including replacing the word ‘war’ with ‘conflict’.”revealed Financial Timeswith reference to two people directly versed in this issue. “These language changes have caused internal disputes and complaints from some employees. These changes contrast with explicit references to Russia’s “war” in studies by rival banks such as UBS, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank. »

Undoubtedly, the higher clergy of industry and banking knows their semantic catechism, distinguishes a palette of shades, knows that there is a gradation in the meaning of words. At BNP Paribas, during the annual general meeting of shareholders on May 17, they announced the search for the chairman of the board of directors “to say a few words about the situation in Ukraine after the events that began on February 24 and the hostilities known to us. » Jean Lemierre paid particular attention to the 5,000 Ukrainian employees (the bank has a subsidiary in Ukraine, UkrSibbank, headquartered in Kyiv, with branches across the country), who “did a wonderful job as local bankers. They kept the agencies as open as possible to do their jobs. And doing your job in difficult times, during times of war, let’s call it that, is to provide banking services to clients, including ensuring that wages are paid into clients’ accounts and ensuring that clients can withdraw cash, because during conflicts this is very important. . »

“Acceptable rhetorical compromise”

“A company that doesn’t want to get completely wet can use the term ‘conflict’.transcribed by Arnaud Mercier, professor of political communications at the Panthéon-Assas University of Paris. She did not say the word “war”, but no one will blame her for pretending to be a peace operation, since she used the word “conflict”. This is an intermediate solution that can be called wise. You manage to find a way not to offend Ukraine and its allies, and at the same time, if you still have Russian interests, you haven’t said too much. This is an acceptable rhetorical compromise. This is necessarily the result of tactical thinking. Obviously, when you know that politicians and statesmen are fighting to call things that way or not, you cannot be ignorant of this and cannot act as if there was no reflection of the company’s position in it. rhetorical conflict. It is reasonable to start by saying to yourself: well, there is a semantic dispute, how do we position ourselves on this issue? »

There was no reflection in TotalEnergies, “we call a spade a spade”one says ” war “. Only in the Russian branch, for security reasons, this word is not in the lexicon of about 200 employees. If this oil company is one of the most present French companies in Russia even today, it is because it is a shareholder in Novatek and owns, thanks to an alliance with Russian gas number 2, shares in Yamal LNG. field in Western Siberia. Local partner TotalEnergies is private, as much as a Russian company run by an oligarch can be, but enough that the French giant with his most political activism does not need to keep his mouth shut, unlike Renault, which, in order to be able to leave Russia in an organized manner, needs was not to offend the Kremlin. The automaker did indeed sell its Moscow plant and its stake in AvtoVAZ to non-sanctioned government entities, and thus, indirectly, to the same government that criminalized the word “war.”