Orange boss doubles down on Huawei defense amid heightened security debate

PARIS (Reuters) - The boss of France’s state-controlled telecoms operator Orange on Thursday renewed his defense of Huawei’s right to sell 5G equipment in Europe amid tense debates on the continent over mobile-network security.

Discussion has intensified in France and Germany this week after European industrial policy chief Thierry Breton dismissed claims that relying on European companies to build a 5G network would delay its rollout.

U.S. authorities have called for a complete ban on the world’s biggest telecoms equipment maker Huawei in Europe’s 5G networks over fears of Chinese spying, leaving some of the largest carriers fretting that their investment plans could be jeopardized.

“I’m against excluding Huawei,” Orange’s Chief Executive Officer and Chairman Stéphane Richard told reporters at a news conference in Paris, but added that he was all in favor of a clear set of European-wide rules.

Huawei has repeatedly denied that its equipment can be used for spying.

While agreeing on the desire shown by Breton to favor European providers such as Nokia and Ericsson, Richard said he hoped the call for more stringent rules would not lead to a de facto veto of Huawei in Europe.

“(It) would go against the EU’s interests and would cause major problems for most of the EU operators,” added Richard, who also chairs the telecoms industry lobby group GSMA.

The comments echoed previous remarks made late last year, when he said some of the security fears surrounding Huawei were “complete nonsense”.

Breton, a former French finance minister who led Orange in the early 2000s, in contrast insists that strict security conditions would not create delays in the rollout of 5G technology on the continent.

“Europe, including Germany of course, is on track. We are not, and won’t be, late in Europe on the deployment of 5G,” Breton said at a weekend conference in Munich, Germany.

Breton, who heads the vast ‘Single Market’ portfolio in the new European Commission, which includes industrial policy, has said Europe should preserve its “technological sovereignty” by ensuring it has domestic alternatives in strategic areas.

Reporting by Mathieu Rosemain; Editing by Kirsten Donovan