By Sybille de La Hamaide
PARIS (Reuters) - An extraordinary board meeting of French sugar group Tereos on Friday elected Gerard Clay as chairman, his lawyer said, hours after a court rejected a request by the group to suspend Clay.
The meeting also decided to dismiss Chief Executive Alexis Duval and replace him with Philippe de Raynal with immediate effect, Thibault Guillemin, the lawyer representing Clay and two other board members Tereos had sought to oust, told Reuters.
A Tereos spokesman could not be reached immediately for comment.
The change of leadership hands a victory to a group of Tereos' farmer cooperative members who have for several years voiced concerns over financial results and debt at the world's second-largest sugar producer.
Tensions worsened last year when eight of the group alleged the company had delivered potentially dangerous sorbitol, a sugar alcohol, to Islamic State. Sorbitol produced by Tereos was found in territory controlled at the time by the militant group.
Tereos rejected the allegations and Paris' anti-terrorist authorities dismissed the case. Tereos filed a libel suit against the accusers and won the case late last month.
Days later, three of the eight members - Clay, Xavier Laude and Jerome Hary - were elected or re-elected to the group's supervisory board. That led Tereos to postpone a board meeting due to elect a new chairman and ask a court to force the three members to step down for breaking company rules.
Friday's court ruling in Senlis north of Paris upheld the election of the three board members while also validating an extraordinary board meeting they and board allies had called for that evening, Guillemin told Reuters earlier.
"The court has brought to an end a dispute that has weighed on the workings of the cooperative for the past four years," he said after the ruling.
The Tereos spokesman had said he was not immediately able to confirm the ruling.
Clay was part of a 14-strong group on the 25-member board that called Friday's emergency meeting, a letter seen by Reuters showed.
Tereos' previous chairman, Jean-Charles Lefebvre, in a separate letter also seen by Reuters had asked board members not to attend the meeting, saying Tereos' management would not consider decisions taken as valid.
Tereos' prior leadership had the backing of workers, who held a strike last week to express concern that a change in management could lead to factory closures or job cuts.
Like its peers, Tereos has struggled since the end of European sugar quotas in 2017. Earnings have improved this year but its net debt remained significant at 2.5 billion euros by Sept. 30.
The group has large operations in Brazil and is also a major ethanol and starch producer.
Gerard Clay is a past chairman of SDHF, a sugar cooperative in northern France that merged with Tereos over a decade ago. Incoming CEO de Raynal was previously chief executive of grain cooperative Axereal.
Friday's board meeting also appointed a new finance chief, with Gwenael Elies succeeding Stephanie Billet, according to a later statement issued by Guillemin.
(Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide. Writing by Gus Trompiz. Editing by Christian Lowe and Mark Potter)