Sarkozy in Brussels bid to seal Alstom rescue

3rd May 2004, Comments 0 comments

BRUSSELS, May 3 (AFP) - French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy met here Monday with EU Competition Commissioner Mario Monti for talks on rescue arrangements for the engineering group Alstom.

BRUSSELS, May 3 (AFP) - French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy met here Monday with EU Competition Commissioner Mario Monti for talks on rescue arrangements for the engineering group Alstom.

Public exchanges for their first meeting since Sarkozy was named at the end of March were cordial, marking a departure from earlier tensions between the finance ministry and Monti's office.

Sarkozy, who won a reputation as a non-nonsense tough guy at the interior ministry before taking up his new position, emerged from the meeting saying "there was a common will, it seems to me, to find a solution" for the ailing company.

After an "extremely rich meeting" with Monti, Sarkozy said his aides would meet with Monti's office as soon as Tuesday to further discuss Alstom and that he could himself come to see Monti again next week.

The meeting on Monday was the first direct contact between the French minister and Monti since a new cabinet was named at the end of March, and their discussions were also to include French plans for the energy group EDF and telecommunications operator France Telecom.

Despite past tension between Paris and Monti's office over how to help Alstom, the two men appeared to strike it off from from the start.

Sarkozy and his delegation arrived 10 minutes early for the meeting, prompting Monti to quip: "It is uncommon behaviour which I appreciate very much."

The kind words both men had for the other marked a change of tenor from previous relations between the French finance ministry and the EU's competition regulators on the Alstom issue, which had consisted of the French presenting the commission with fait accomplis that were later subject to modification.

The French state has engineered a EUR 3.2 billion (USD 3.8 billion) rescue plan that would combine assistance from the state and private banks.

But the scheme needs approval from the European Commission, with a decision expected at the end of June.

Last Tuesday the group managed to secure a suspension - until September 30 - in its financial commitments from the banks on a subordinated loan of EUR 1.5 billion as well as an older debt of EUR 900 million.

Sarkozy was expected to defend the proposed plan, possibly by orchestrating a merger of Alstom with the state-owned nuclear energy group Areva.

Such a solution would skirt around competition issues that could dog a mooted tie-up between Alstom and its German rival Siemens, for example.

Shortly after his appointment in late March, Sarkozy - in his first major corporate venture - visited Alstom's train production site near La Rochelle where he vowed that "we will not let Alstom fail."

Asked Monday before the meeting about the possiblities of getting a green light from Brussels for the rescue plan, the French minister just smiled and replied: "What do you think"?

© AFP

                                                   Subject: French news

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