* Board pledges independent selection process
* Frenchman Guillaume Faury seen as leading internal candidate
* Company says CEO Enders will ensure smooth transition (Adds background, political context)
By Tim Hepher and Cyril Altmeyer
PARIS, March 20 (Reuters) - The board of Airbus will nominate a new CEO at the end of the year, the European aerospace company said on Tuesday as it pledged to implement an independent selection process.
The announcement follows media speculation and political comments about the succession to German-born Tom Enders, with Airbus saying the choice of his replacement would be led by an independent committee backed by external headhunters.
The new CEO's name will be submitted to shareholders at the annual meeting in spring 2019 and Enders will help to secure a smooth transition, the company said in a statement.
Former Airbus No.2 Fabrice Bregier was until recently seen as heir apparent to long-time rival Enders, but in December the board agreed the staggered departure of both executives.
Their feud had reached boiling point when Enders removed the commercial sales arm from Bregier’s control last summer. Bregier left in February and Enders announced he would not seek a new term when his mandate expires in 2019, contradicting earlier signals indicating he would stay.
The main internal candidate is Guillaume Faury, the former head of the group's helicopter unit, who stepped into Bregier's shoes as planemaking boss last month.
Le Figaro reported this month that Faury could combine the CEO role with day-to-day control of the planemaking arm.
Industry observers say the Airbus board is keen to assert control of the appointments process after the company changed its rules in 2013 to reduce the influence of the French and German governments, which each own 11 percent.
During the first 12 years after a pan-European merger in 2000, top jobs had been divided up between France and Germany to protect national interests. Now there are fewer restrictions.
However, alarm bells rang at the company when German Economy Minister Brigitte Zypries said this month that Berlin would not oppose a suitable French candidate to replace Enders.
Under Airbus's previous system of indirect state control, such a concession might have eased traditional Franco-German rivalries over who should run the politically sensitive group.
But since 2013, the board has been at pains to emphasise its independence, meaning even supportive political statements have occasionally triggered a frosty response.
Even now, Airbus watchers say few outside the company believe the French and German governments are blind to who runs Airbus, especially in the light of recent corruption investigations over commercial jetliner and fighter sales.
They add that the nationality of the CEO could influence the position of chairman, since the roles have been divided between French and German candidates, even since the 2013 reforms. Chairman Denis Ranque's mandate expires in 2020.
Alexandre de Juniac, head of the International Air Transport Association, had been tipped in several media reports as a potential CEO but said this month that the job was not on his agenda.
Enders told staff in January that he would remain fully focused on strategic initiatives, but some analysts have said that the company faces months of uncertainty until a successor is named. (Reporting by Tim Hepher and Cyril Altmeyer Editing by David Goodman)