* SFR-Numericable deal maintains four mobile players
* Government says this number should come down to three
* Bouygues now seen as potential target for Iliad
* Montebourg vows to continue with "friendly pressure"
By Gwénaëlle Barzic
PARIS, April 9 The French government will
continue to pursue consolidation in the country's telecoms
sector after Vivendi's decision to sell its SFR unit to
cable firm Numericable, Economy Minister Arnaud
Montebourg said on Wednesday.
The government had openly supported a rival bid from
Bouygues, arguing that the number of mobile operators
needed to come down to three to end a destructive price war and
encourage investment in high-speed broadband. Vivendi finally
picked Numericable on Saturday, in a move that keeps the number
of operators at four.
The deal creates France's second-biggest telecoms player
behind Orange, but it weakens smaller operator
Bouygues, which could now become a prey for Iliad, the
operator that has slashed prices and hurt its rivals' margins
since the 2012 launch of its Free Mobile service.
"There are two smaller operators that remain, and we can
wonder what their future will be unless they merge, which
doesn't seem to be on the agenda right now," Montebourg told a
parliamentary committee hearing late in the evening.
"Our policy of re-consolidating the sector, of bringing it
down to three operators remains all the more relevant. We will
work actively in this direction," he said.
On Tuesday, Montebourg - freshly promoted from Industry
Minister to Economy Minister after a government reshuffle - met
both Numericable's main shareholder Patrick Drahi and Bouygues'
Chief Executive Martin Bouygues.
Montebourg said he had received a letter from Drahi in which
the Franco-Israeli billionaire reaffirmed his commitment to
preserve jobs and invest in high-speed broadband, and offered to
list his Luxembourg-based holding company Altice on
Euronext in Paris. It is currently listed in Amsterdam.
"We will ensure that the promises made are respected,"
Montebourg said, adding that the government would also be
vigilant as to the impact of the deal on subcontractors' jobs.
"We will continue with our friendly pressure," he said,
speaking alongside his new junior minister in charge of digital
affairs, French-Canadian Axelle Lemaire.
(Reporting by Gwenaelle Barzic; Writing by Natalie Huet;
Editing by Ken Wills)