Combes, 51, replaces Ben Verwaayen, who announced earlier this month he was leaving after Alcatel swung to a net loss of 1.37 billion euros (1.1 billion pounds) for 2012, hit by lower sales in Europe and China and a writedown of its wireless and optics businesses.
Verwaayen, whose mandate was due to end in May, had said the company needed a new leader to complete its turnaround.
Alcatel has been hit hard by the rise of low-cost Chinese competitors and trails market leaders Sweden's Ericsson and China's Huawei in size and market share in mobile gear.
Since it was formed in a merger in 2006, the Franco-American group has gone through two chief executives and not been able to reach sustainable profitability or cash flows despite cost-cutting and paring of its product portfolio.
Combes is a well known figure in the telecoms industry with more than 20 years of experience in various companies.
Combes, European head of Vodafone since 2008, left that position in October 2012.
He had been named to take over as chief executive of Vivendi's SFR, France's second-biggest mobile operator last year, but the appointment was aborted after a management shake-up at the parent company.
During his career, Combes has held the positions of chairman and CEO of TDF as well as Chief Financial Officer and Senior Executive Vice President of France Telecom .
(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by James Regan and Mark Potter)