Sarkozy in no rush to sell off French industrial jewels

New French President Nicolas Sarkozy is keeping business elite of his country waiting.

The energetic Sarkozy made a big show of his determination to return Airbus, Europe's struggling planemaker, to its former glory, but other, less glamorous industrial dossiers are piling up on his desk. They are unlikely to be opened until after next month's legislative elections.

How he handles them will be a litmus test of Sarkozy's proclaimed pro-market tendencies in a country suspicious of capitalism and with deep traditions of state involvement in the economy. The most prickly plans include privatizations of major French companies that could help finance Sarkozy's tax cuts and other reforms - and would almost certainly incite mass protests and strikes.

Since Sarkozy needs to stay popular to win a parliamentary majority, he is putting off the sensitive questions until after the June 10 and 17 parliamentary elections, said Aurore Wanlin, a researcher at the Centre for European Reform. "After that, we will see. In his vision for France, the state has an important role to play in the economy."

Sarkozy's new staff is largely mum about the biggest dossiers: a long-stalled merger between national gas company Gaz de France and utility giant Suez, and the selloffs of state stakes in Electricite de France, nuclear engineering giant Areva and airport operator Aeroports de Paris, known as ADP.

Newly appointed officials at the presidential Elysee Palace and the Finance Ministry did not return calls seeking comment on Sarkozy's industrial plans.

Investors and big businesses, meanwhile, are eager to uncover Sarkozy's plans for the state's EUR170 billion (US$228.5 billion) in assets of traded companies.

The weekly financial newspaper Le Revenu last week published an investor guide to the government's portfolio, which ranges from a 31 percent stake in Safran, a conglomerate that makes jet engines, to a 19 percent holding in Air France-KLM. The newspaper speculated on possible share sales for 10 companies, but recommended buying only one: ADP.

French construction company Vinci has declared an interest in an eventual privatization of the airport operator, the newspaper said, explaining the stock's upside potential.

French power giant EDF is "ready" to put more shares on the market if the government decides to do so, Chairman Pierre Gadonneix said at the company's annual shareholders' meeting in Paris last week. Under French law, the state could sell an additional 17 percent of the company, lowering its stake to 70 percent.

Areva President Anne Lauvergeon, who has a longstanding relationship with Sarkozy - she was an economic adviser to President Francois Mitterrand when Sarkozy was budget minister - may be hoping to realize her ambition of an exchange listing for Areva shares. In 2005, Areva's initial public offering plan was blocked by then-Finance Minister Thierry Breton amid opposition to relinquishing control of such a strategic industry.

Another possibility for Areva is forging closer ties with Alstom, famed for its high-speed trains. At a news conference this month, Alstom Chairman and Chief Executive Patrick Kron said he sees "an interest" in forging closer ties with France's state-owned nuclear engineering firm, while stressing the government hadn't yet gotten around to studying the dossier.

Sarkozy is thought to favor a partial privatization of Areva. Martin Bouygues, CEO of Bouygues, whichownsa 25.3percent stake in Alstom, has long said his company would be interested in buying a stake in Areva. Another option mulled by the Journal du Dimanche this month is the sale of an Areva stake to French oil giant Total.

As for Aeroports de Paris, Sarkozy's election increases "chances for a full privatization in the future" though a "full exit" is not imminent, Franco-Belgian banking group Dexia said in a research note earlier this month.

The planned Suez-Gaz de France marriage - arranged by Sarkozy's one-time rival former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to fend off a bid for Suez by Italy's Enel SpA - is on hold. Villepin's successor, Francois Fillon, said Wednesday the government is considering other possibilities and will review the deal in late June or early July.

For a merger to take place, the government would have to privatize GDF, something Sarkozy promised not to do when he was finance minister in 2004. Villepin introduced legislation allowing the government to reduce its stake to 33 percent, a move vigorously opposed by unions and Socialist lawmakers.

Both companies say their union is the best option, but insist they will be all right if it doesn't happen. Suez announced this month it has amassed an 11 percent stake in Spain's Gas Natural, which analysts said could make a good alternative if the GDF deal falls through.

Sarkozy has made clear the priority of his "ambitious industrial policy" is Airbus, and has vowed to seek new investors or inject new cash in the European planemaker. It became a major French campaign issue after massive layoffs combined with an enormous golden handshake for the ousted chief executive sparked a public outcry.

Airbus was on the menu of Sarkozy's first overseas visit, to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He picked an Airbus factory near Toulouse for his first domestic visit to talk with unions and management.

Airbus has suffered from a falling U.S. dollar - the currency in which it sells planes - and two years of delays to the 555-seater A380, which have wiped more than EUR5 billion (US$6.6 billion) off Airbus' profit forecasts for 2006-2010.

The French government currently owns 15 percent of EADS, while Paris-based Lagardere SCA owns 7.5 percent. Their combined stake is balanced by Stuttgart, Germany-based DaimlerChrysler AG, which holds 22.5 percent of voting rights in the defense group.

Sarkozy has cited his experience with Alstom as a possible model: As finance minister, Sarkozy engineered a EUR2.5 billion, state-orchestrated bailout to steer the train and power-plant builder away from bankruptcy.

"Alstom was much simpler," said Pierre Boucheny, an analyst at Kepler Equities in Paris. "With EADS, Daimler and the Germans have always said that the state doesn't have a role in managing companies."

Der Spiegel reported last week that Merkel was cool about Sarkozy's plans to raise the state's stake in EADS. "The German government's position on EADS is to pursue a private investors' solution and to reduce public stakes in the company," government spokesman Thomas Steg told reporters in Berlin.

Analysts said Sarkozy's handling of the dossier will speak volumes about his diplomatic skills and free-market tendencies.

"He's first and foremost pragmatic," said Boucheny. "He's someone who believes in the market but who also believes the state has a role to play."

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Author`s name Angela Antonova