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Backlash builds in France over privatization of airports operator

PARIS (Reuters) - A petition calling for a referendum on the possible privatization of French airports operator ADP has attracted more than one million signatures, still far off the threshold needed to trigger a vote but piling pressure on the government’s plans.

FILE PHOTO: Passengers wait for their planes at the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy, France, June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

President Emmanuel Macron has sought to kickstart a wave of state sell-offs since his first days in office in 2017, following up on a campaign promise to raise a 10 billion euro ($11 billion) fund to invest in cutting edge technology.

While the government has since moved ahead with a privatization of the lottery monopoly, the ADP ADP.PA sale, one of the cornerstones of the plan, has hit hurdles following criticism from a variety of opponents.

The government’s bid to sell all or part of its 50.6% stake in ADP - worth around 8.8 billion euros ($9.7 billion) at current market prices - is now on the backburner until the petition runs its course.

France’s highest court said on Wednesday it had garnered more than a million signatures. Legally the ADP privatization could be blocked if 10% of registered French voters, or 4.7 million people, sign the petition by March.

While that goal seems hard to reach, growing support for a referendum comes as Macron faces one of the biggest nationwide strikes in years from Dec. 5, in a protest against pension reforms that could bring transport and schools to a standstill.

Opposition to the ADP privatization has been one of the rallying cries of recent protests against the government, including during the so-called yellow vest demonstrations, which sprung up as a backlash against the high cost of living.

The group operates Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, and plans to relinquish state ownership have fueled criticism even from some politicians that the government is selling valuable and strategic national assets.

Macron had also opened the door to lowering the trigger level for public petitions such as the ADP one to one million votes for them to be actionable, as part of planned constitutional reforms.

These are yet to make their way through parliament, however.

France raised 2 billion for state coffers through the sell-off of lottery operator Francaise des Jeux FDJ.PA, which whittled down its stake to 20%. The company began trading on the stock exchange in late November.

Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Matthieu Protard; Writing by Sarah White, Editing by Mark Potter and Emelia Sithole-Matarise