* Socialist decree echoes rivals’ “economic patriotism” drive
* List of protected sectors widens, but rarely used
* French say U.S. has stronger takeover defences
* French companies also grew through foreign acquisitions
By Tim Hepher
PARIS, May 15 (Reuters) - France’s decision to expand its veto powers over strategic sectors to give it some leverage on the future of engineering group Alstom reflects a rare area of policy consensus that resonates across the political spectrum.
New rules published by the Socialist government on Thursday expand a nine-year old watch list of sensitive sectors from defence, security and anti-money laundering to touch a much wider range of services. [IDn:L1N0O02AC]
The original 2005 decree came hard on the heels of a campaign for “economic patriotism,” a phrase coined earlier by conservative parliamentarian Bernard Carayon.
It became a key slogan of the premiership of another conservative, Dominique de Villepin, having risen up the agenda after French voters defeated European reforms in a referendum.
Some French politicians argue their takeover controls are more lax than those of the United States, where a government panel vets foreign investments for impact on security. Washington barred Dubai Ports World from buying port operator P&O in 2006 and China’s CNOOC from buying oil firm Unocal in 2005.
French alarm bells about foreign takeovers were first rung by a private equity firm’s move in 2000 to take a stake in a French smart-card technology company, Gemplus. In 2005 France dashed to the support of Danone in the face of a rumoured bid from PepsiCo, which never actually materialized.
Critics of such manoeuvres say France itself benefits from a high proportion of global companies in its blue-chip index, including Sanofi, formerly Sanofi-Aventis, formed from an initially hostile bid for a German firm that carried political support.
In practice, experts say, the laws restricting takeovers have rarely been used. Pressure, when successful, is usually applied outside such a framework and rarely along predictable party lines.
In 2006, Villepin’s centre-right government oversaw a merger of energy firms Suez and state-controlled Gaz de France to create GDF Suez and fend off a bid by Italy’s Enel.
Yet in 2012, the Socialist government backed a proposed merger between aerospace group EADS and Britain’s BAE Systems that would have led to a smaller French role in the sensitive European group, only to see it blocked by Germany.
Below is the list of strategic sectors in which foreign takeovers can be vetoed by the French government.
2. Regulated private security companies
3. Prevention of terrorist activities using pathogens or toxic agents
4. Eavesdropping and electronic interception
5. Evaluation and certification of IT systems
6. Provision of computer services to public operators or sensitive infrastructure
7. Dual-use technology
9. Businesses with access to defence secrets
10. Arms manufacture and trade
11. Companies contracted by the defence ministry in connection with 7. to 10. above.
(*Casinos were exempted in 2012 but the broader gaming category remained subject to takeover restrictions)
Added by 2014 decree
12. Security and continuity of supplies that are essential to public order or safety and national defence, as follows:
a) Electricity, gas, hydrocarbon or other energy supplies
b) Water supplies
c) Transport operators
d) Electronic communications
e) Installations of vital national interest
f) Protection of public health (Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Andrew Callus and Peter Graff)