PARIS -- By the end of this year some 31,000 employes of General Electric Co. will become the troops of a hard-nosed French boss who hopes to marshal them into a force to dominate the world consumer electronics market.
Alain Gomez, the 48-year-old former paratrooper who heads France's state-owned Thomson S.A., believes the RCA and GE television and VCR business that Thomson will acquire from GE represents the only way to fend off the mounting attack from competitors in the Far East.
"We're going to America to counterattack," Gomez said here. "We lost the first round in the 1970s and early 1980s because we didn't have a global dimension. What we are aiming to do now is be among the winners of the second round, because those who don't win won't be around to talk about it."
Combining GE's $3 billion-a-year business with Thomson Grand Public, its consumer electronics division, will create a $6 billion operation that will rank third worldwide behind N.V. Philips of Holland and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. of Japan.
Gomez said Thomson Grand Public will have access to research and manufacturing facilities in the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia, access he called "a prerequisite for competing successfully in the fast-changing consumer electronics marketplace."
Analysts who follow Thomson in Europe were shocked by but enthusiastic about last month's deal, which also called for Thomson to sell its medical imaging business to GE.
"I'm quite staggered," said Bill Coleman, an analyst with James Capel & Co. stockbrokers in London. He characterized the asset swap as a "brave move" by Gomez.
"Thomson was really only strong in France and Germany in consumer electronics," Coleman said. "He took what was likely to become an also-ran and catapulted it into third place."
The consumer electronics market, he said, "is one in which you're either big or you don't survive. There are no half-way houses."
The television business in the United States is up about 8 percent this year, and is also doing well in Europe. Digital technology, stereo sound and other technological advances have given new life to the replacement market, Coleman said.
Company officials would not say whether there were plans to export RCA or GE brands to Europe or take Thomson brands to the United States. Analysts said, however, that Thomson's Telefunken brand could conceivably be marketed in the United States, where it already has a small amount of name recognition.
Thomson also markets products under Brandt, Dual, Normende, Saba, Thomson and Videocolor brands.
Coleman said operating efficiencies in the new business could come from savings in joint research and development, manufacturing and component design.
Eventually, he said, the operations of the six television plants of the two companies could be consolidated into three facilities, either one in Europe and two in the United States or two in Europe and one in the United States.
With this acquisition, Thomson will more than double its television-making production to about 7.5 million units a year, becoming second to Philips, which Coleman estimates produces 8.6 million units.
Aside from these efficiencies, the acquisition of RCA and GE suddenly provides a big and steady customer for another Thomson business: semiconductors. In 1985, Thomson-CSF, a publicly traded subsidiary that it controls, bought Mostek Corp., the semiconductor unit of United Technologies Corp.
Earlier this year, Thomson merged its semiconductor unit with Italy's SGS Microelettronica s.p.a., forming Unisem, Europe's second-largest chip maker behind Philips.
Another incentive for Gomez to buy the GE-RCA business, one analyst said, was to make Thomson's shares more attractive when the government decides to sell them off. Thomson, with 1986 profits of $265 million on revenues of $9 billion, is among the state-owned companies to be denationalized by the conservative government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac in the next year or two. The analyst suggested that Thomson's shares could now be floated as soon as the deal is consummated.
Gomez, who was appointed in 1982 to run Thomson after the then-Socialist government nationalized it, is credited with bringing a discipline and strategy to the group that had been involved, but not dominant, in a variety of sectors. Now, aside from the consumer electronics business, the company will remain a world player in the defense electronics business, which is grouped under Thomson-CSF.
By leaving its medical equipment business, Gomez is opting the company out of a market in which Thomson was soon to be overshadowed. Last April, Philips and Picker International announced a merger that would have created the biggest medical equipment company in the world.
In fact, the negotiations between GE and Thomson, which started in June with a visit to Paris by GE Chairman Jack Welch, were given "psychological acceleration" by the Picker-Philips deal, a GE official acknowledged.
Susan Waton-Mackie, an analyst with Phillips & Drew in London, said the Philips-Picker merger would have "dwarfed" Thomson, making it much harder for it to survive in the market independently.
Thomson-CGR, particularly strong in the radiology sector, is the leading company worldwide for mammography equipment for the detection of breast cancer.
Vincenso Morelli, president of GE Medical Systems-Europe, said GE will rationalize the operations of the two companies in the various sectors. He projected employment cutbacks of "no more than a few percentage points" of the unit's combined work force of 16,600. Those cuts, he said, would fall on both sides.
But Daniel Dirmbure, an analyst who follows Thomson-CSF for Boscher, a Paris stockbroker, questioned the timing of the sell-off to GE. "I don't understand the logic of selling at this moment," he said. "After investing around 2 billion francs to build its business over the past four or five years, it's now giving up, just when it is recovering."