France to vet takeovers of firms in data and artificial intelligence

PARIS (Reuters) - The French government aims to broaden its powers to block foreign takeovers of French companies deemed as strategic, to also include firms involved in data protection and artificial intelligence (‘AI’), the finance minister said on Friday.

Bruno Le Maire said he wanted the two sectors to be added to a 2014 decree requiring foreign companies to get permission from the French state before taking control of firms in the energy, telecoms, transport, water and the health industries.

“I think that when you look at current economic trends, there’s a certain number of sectors that could be added to this decree,” Le Maire said on BFM TV.

“I’m thinking of everything dealing with personal data. Do we really want investors to market our data? I’m thinking about artificial intelligence, a very sensitive sector that we want more investment in,” he added.

The French government has typically held stakes in major blue-chip firms and national industries which it considers to be of strategic importance to the country.

Past governments have often talked tough about blocking mergers deemed as hostile to the interests of key, national industries, although few have ended up being actually vetoed.

During a trip to China earlier this week, Le Maire said he would announce plans next Monday to boost that 2014 decree, which already widened the government’s control over mergers considered to be in France’s national interests.

That decree was rolled out by a previous Socialist government as General Electric was seeking to buy the energy assets of French group Alstom. The deal eventually went through with the government’s blessing.

A finance ministry source declined to say which companies might be affected, but said it would cover sectors and firms “working with these subjects or using these technologies”.

Reporting by Myriam Rivet; Writing by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta