France intervened in the race to win a pounds 2.5bn UK army helicopter contract yesterday, warning that Britain should choose the Franco-German Tiger aircraft, in which British Aerospace has a stake.
Ministry of Defence technical advisers were this week thought to have told Roger Freeman, the UK defence procurement minister, that there was little to choose between the three bids.
Charles Millon, the French defence minister, was in London to meet his opposite number at the Ministry of Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, for the first time.
Mr Millon said Britain risked exclusion from European defence and aerospace co-operation programmes unless it backed the Tiger project. France has already suggested that a merger of BAe's missiles business with the French group Matra will only be sanctioned by Paris if the UK awards an RAF order to the joint group.
Mr Millon said the UK should give preference to European manufacturers in procurement decisions as a way of solving overcapacity problems in Europe's defence industry. He said there was no point in Britain joining a pan-European armaments agency unless it backed industry by awarding contracts within Europe.
Mr Rifkind said he had an open mind on who should win the order, expected to go before the Cabinet in mid-July. It could be delayed by the Conservative Party leadership election.
The other bidders are the UK's Westland and GEC. Westland is part of the Apache helicopter group being promoted by America's McDonnell Douglas. GEC is bidding with US partner Bell, with the Cobra Venom.
With a strong vote of confidence from MoD specialists, the Tiger could soon emerge as the front runner. The helicopter is also thought to have the support of Mr Freeman, and possibly Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, who favour closer integration of European defence companies.