Lloyds rebuffed by French in Lyonnais sell-off talks

LLOYDS TSB, the high street banking giant, has held top-level discussions with the French government about participating in the pounds 4bn privatisation of the bank Credit Lyonnais.

Banking sources say the discussions, which took place within the last six weeks, provide the strongest signal yet that Lloyds is actively looking abroad for deals. Until now it has cultivated a reputation for being the most UK-focused of the big four British banks.

However, the Lloyds chairman Sir Brian Pitman walked away from the talks over Credit Lyonnais after being told his demands for full management control were unacceptable to the French.

The Lyonnais approach is understood to have come from the French whose Finance Minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is looking to create a core group of three large shareholders with around 10 per cent each prior to floating all but 10 per cent of the bank on the French stock market next year. However, bankers say the French were so outraged by Sir Brian's attitude that they have struck the British off their list of potential investors altogether.

Barclays made a takeover approach to the French about Credit Lyonnais some three years ago but was also rebuffed on much the same grounds

"They were very serious about Lyonnais," said one City source. "Pitman believes that Lloyds' success was being in at the start of the consolidation of the UK banking sector. Now with the euro coming, he is trying to identify other markets where consolidation will be replicated."

Lyonnais would have fitted one of Sir Brian's key acquisition criteria, in that the bank, despite the bad publicity surrounding its spectacular collapse five years ago, is the leading retail and commercial bank in Europe's second largest economy. There is also considerable fat to be trimmed, although France's restrictive labour laws remain a problem.

Lloyds is now understood to be looking seriously at other European targets, including rival French banks Societe Generale and Banque Nationale de Paris, as well as Commerzbank and BHF in Germany.

One banker said yesterday: "They are gearing up to do something. Internally staff have been primed to expect an international deal."

He added: "What they want to do is find a country where they can acquire two banks and then put them together in much the same way that they did here, first with Cheltenham & Gloucester and then with TSB."

Lloyds-TSB said last night that both Sir Brian and the chief executive Peter Ellwood had been open in the past about the bank's interest in pulling off a sizeable acquisition, and that international deals were definitely on the agenda. "They are looking both inside the UK and outside the UK."

Lloyds has also looked recently at National Australia Bank, which would give them Yorkshire and Clydesdale banks in the UK.

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