The Gallic sense of humour


by David Moss

December 2010
updated February 2011
updated September 2011


Can you ever change your identity? Sagem Sécurité, whose job it is to fix your identity biometrically and forever – at least it is if you live in the UK or Australia or India or France and maybe soon the US – would say no, you can't.

You can't, but they can and they did, six months ago:

Sagem Sécurité se dote aujourd'hui d'une nouvelle identité et devient "Morpho". "Avec ce changement de nom, la société affirme son ambition et son dynamisme à regrouper toutes les activités de sécurité du groupe Safran autour d'un nouveau nom. Avec Morpho, la société s'inscrit dans la continuité de son histoire et de son développement depuis 3 ans. Ce nouveau nom, symbole d'une vision stratégique commune, portera les valeurs de la société : la confiance par l'innovation et l'excellence technologique au service de nos clients", explique la société.
Le déploiement de la nouvelle identité s'organisera progressivement via les nombreuses filiales de la société à travers le monde.

Menelaus Blue Morpho,
Morpho menelaus

Sagem Sécurité is a subsidiary of the Safran group, France's answer to the UK's BAE Systems plc, and has changed its name to Morpho. Why?

To symbolise the common objectives of Safran's security business. That's what the press release says.

Those objectives are somehow not symbolised well enough by the name "Sagem Sécurité", which includes the word "sécurité" (roughly translated, "security"). It is much better symbolised apparently by the name "Morpho". How?

A morpho is a butterfly. There are 80 species of them in the genus Morpho. And very pretty they are, too, with their astonishingly shiny and astonishingly blue wings. (Oddly, morphos aren't actually blue at all. There's not a jot of blue pigment in them. Their blueness is nothing but a trick of the light.)

Morpho are projecting as their image of security something that is beautiful, short-lived, transcendently fragile and born out of a caterpillar (Sagem Sécurité). Why a butterfly? It must be the Gallic sense of humour which stopped them from choosing an image of long-lasting strength and confidence-inspiring defensive power.

They do these things better in China, where the state plan to register everyone's biometrics is known as "Operation Golden Shield".

In their own estimation:

Morpho (Safran group) is the world leader in multi-biometric technologies for fingerprint, iris and facial recognition, a global leader in the smart card industry and an acknowledged expert in identification and detection systems ...
Part of the international high-tech group Safran, Morpho helps customers protect people, assets and communities, creating trust worldwide.

Dealing in trust as Morpho do, the biometrics, on which the protection they are selling relies, are meant by definition to be unchanging, fixed, lifelong, persistent, and so on – the very opposite of metamorphosis. It's that Gallic sense of humour again.

There has been no news of Safran's plan to buy L-1 Identity Solutions Inc. since late September, three months ago. Safran are offering to pay $1.6 billion for this US biometrics caterpillar, L-1, which has never been troubled by profits or taxes thereon, and whose products have been demonstrated in a large-scale field trial not to work.

That setback has been solved in the traditional way. By making the products work? No. By not doing any more large-scale field trials.

Is it the case that the value of L-1 Identity Solutions Inc. is nothing but a trick of the light? It will take more than a change of name to dispel that impression.

You can see why the shareholders of L-1 would want to exit with $1.6 billion. Not many theatrical productions make that kind of money. Get-out-quick-while-the-going-is-good makes good sense, take the money and run. The acquisition of their great biometrics rival Cogent Inc. by 3M was completed on 1 December 2010. Cogent's deal is all snugly tucked up in bed, while L-1 are still waiting. The list of other potential buyers is short. It must be a nervous time.

It's clear why L-1 want Safran but why do Safran want L-1?

Jean-Paul Herteman, CEO of Safran, told Le Figaro that in addition to wanting L-1's turnover (why?) and earnings (does it have any?), he is proud to be repatriating a basically French company whose success is a testament to French R&D and French business sense:

C'est une belle réussite pour une start-up née dans les années 1980 d'un spin off du laboratoire de Fontainebleau de l'École des mines de Paris. C'est une nouvelle preuve que la science française peut générer de l'emploi et du business.

Worth a try when you're in a tight corner, fly the flag, Marianne, la patrie, etc ... It's an amusing suggestion. But equity analysts will have the devil of a job finding the French bit in amongst the polynational patchwork of businesses stitched together pêle-mêle to form the company by Robert V LaPenta, L-1's very own Morpho the Magician, Chairman, President and CEO.

There has to be a better case made than that, something less sentimental, because the question remains, why buy the company? Where are "l'innovation et l'excellence technologique" in L-1? Do Safran's shareholders and equity analysts have the same sense of humour as its managers? Nous verrons.

3 February 2011: L-1 Identity Solutions Stockholders Vote to Approve the Merger with Safran SA

16 May 2011: Arbs See L-1 Takeover Return Evaporate on Safran Query: Real M&A

26 July 2011: Safran completes the acquisition of L-1 Identity Solutions Becomes world leader in biometric identity solutions

9 May 2012: Safran's directors generously give away their shareholders' intellectual property and $1.6 billion of their shareholders' money

David Moss has spent seven years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

© 2010 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd