It was a moment to savour for Arnaud Montebourg, France’s flamboyant economy minister who carries the torch for the interventionist left in President Fran?ois Hollande’s Socialist government.
At a dramatic press conference relayed live on television, he proclaimed victory in his tussle with General Electric, titan of US industrial capitalism, over the terms of its takeover of much of the energy group Alstom, symbol of French engineering prowess.
“It is a victory for Alstom, a success for France and undeniably a political success for the return in force of the state in the economy,” Mr Montebourg said.
For him, the key condition of the deal was for the state to become Alstom’s biggest shareholder, acquiring a 20 per cent stake. That will make the French government GE’s main partner in the three areas where GE and Alstom will have 50:50 joint ventures – in power grid operations, renewables and nuclear turbines, with the state holding an additional “golden share” in the latter.
In the end, GE got most of what it really wanted, swallowing whole Alstom’s global coal and gas-fired turbine business. But for Mr Montebourg and the government, an important and longstanding principle of French industrial policy has been upheld: the central role of the state.
There were differences within the government over the Alstom case. Until the last, Mr Montebourg’s preference was for a rival bid he solicited from Siemens. the German group, which ultimately joined forces with Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to propose a deal similar in structure to that eventually struck with GE.
Mr Hollande was careful to remain neutral, his team clearly mindful of GE’s long record as a good corporate citizen in France.
But there were no arguments over the necessity to step in when news of Alstom’s original plan to make a clean sale of its energy business to GE leaked in April.
“It was perfectly natural for the government to intervene,” said a senior presidential aide, citing the strategic nature of Alstom’s operations, particularly in nuclear power. “Such a deal would have been impossible for a French company in the US,” he added.
Joe Kaeser, Siemens chief executive, said on Friday: “It’s true that the French state has helped [prevent] Alstom?.?.?.?[from] throwing away the company and dismantling a proud industrial icon.”
Manuel Valls, the prime minister appointed two months ago by Mr Hollande to bolster market reforms, went out of his way to heap praise on Mr Montebourg’s muscular dealings with Alstom and GE.
“We owe a lot to the commitment of Arnaud Montebourg,” he said.
This flattery had much to do with rumours in the French media that Mr Montebourg is contemplating quitting the government because of his discomfort over Mr Hollande’s recent swing to a more supply-side economic policy. Mr Valls would rather have his voluble colleague inside the cabinet than potentially causing trouble outside.
But Mr Montebourg’s fight on Alstom elicited little political opposition.
Only 10 years ago, former centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy, then finance minister, bailed out Alstom with state funds – ironically stepping in to prevent it falling into the hands of Siemens.
Likewise, there was negligible opposition in France earlier this year when Mr Montebourg negotiated the ￠800m purchase of a state stake in PSA Peugeot Citro?n to match an investment by China’s Dongfeng to keep the struggling carmaker on its feet.
There have been big corporate deals recently in which the government has not intervened. It stayed out of the now abandoned move to merge Publicis, the advertising group, with its US rival Omnicom. While the Alstom-GE issue raged, Lafarge, the big cement group, has quietly been pushing ahead with its merger with Holcim of Switzerland.
The difference comes where the government sees what it regards as a threat from globalisation to the strategic fabric of France’s industrial and technological assets – and a consequent threat to jobs. In such cases, classic French dirigisme kicks in, embodied in the figure of Mr Montebourg, who wrote a book advocating a policy of “de-globalisation”.
During the Alstom saga, he and Mr Valls issued a decree extending the range of sectors subject to state veto on takeovers from defence, technology and betting to include the energy, transport, telecoms, water and health sectors.
Mr Montebourg calls it “economic patriotism”. His stance is more outspoken than Mr Hollande’s. But in the case of Alstom, there was not much between them.
“Alstom made a big mistake in thinking this was just a corporate matter,” said Mr Hollande’s aide. “The company was saved by the taxpayer [in 2004], and its main clients are in the public sector. Of course it was a political issue.”
Additional reporting by Michael Stothard in Paris
法国政府内部在阿尔斯通收购案上也存在分歧。蒙特布赫直到最后一刻还倾向于他从德国集团西门子(Siemens)那里获得的要约。西门子集团联合日本三菱重工(Mitsubishi Heavy Industries)提出了在股权结构上与通用最终达成的交易类似的收购要约。