Morton accuses banks over leaks

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The Independent Online
Eurotunnel and its bankers were in another row yesterday, this time over alleged leaks in Paris of proposals for restructuring pounds 8.1bn of debt.

As militant French shareholders prepared for a campaign meeting in Calais today to rally support against the banks, Sir Alastair Morton said in a statement to the Stock Exchange that he agreed with criticisms of bank leaks made by his French co-chairman, Patrick Ponsolle.

Sir Alastair said: "I concur with his comments, including his reference to the concern likely to be felt at such behaviour by the Paris Bourse and the London Stock Exchange."

The Stock Exchange, however, is not thought to be investigating the briefings of the press by banks in Paris, because there was little price movement in Eurotunnel shares. The company still awaits details of the bank proposals, which are due by Friday.

Sir Alastair made clear the company expected sacrifices from the banks, saying the two sides would "only make progress when the banks come to the table to negotiate a mutually acceptable resolution of a shared problem".

The Calais meeting is by at the instigation of the Association Pour l'Action Eurotunnel, chaired by Christian Cambier, who is organising today's special train from Paris to the tunnel's Calais terminal to publicise his call for the banks to write off 30 per cent of the debt.

Like other small-shareholder representatives in France, including the separate Association de Defense des Actionnaires d'Eurotunnel (Adacte), Mr Cambier's organisation has been mounting a virulent campaign against the banks which has no parallel in the UK.

The campaign has had widespread backing in the French press and its leaders now claim Mr Ponsolle as a convert to the cause. Two-thirds of Eurotunnel's shareholders are French.

Mr Cambier said recently: "The tunnel belongs to us, and it needs our agreement to take it away from us. We have put in Fr23bn (pounds 2.96bn), Fr19bn has been lifted off us, and we have Fr4bn left."

The theme of the campaign is to prove that the banks were in control of the project from the beginning, that they persuaded shareholders to pour in money and they have a responsibility for the damage done by Eurotunnel's financial failure.

George Berlioz, a lawyer representing Adacte, claims the banks set up the project, fixed its financial structure, acted as managers in fact and in law and at the same time are the main creditors. He claims they are acting as the French equivalent of shadow directors - a practice known as "gestion de fait".

He has also threatened the banks with an action for fraudulent bankruptcy if Eurotunnel does fold, on the grounds that they continued to push ahead with the project to earn interest and commission when it was obviously in financial ruin.

The weapon in the banks' hands is that they have a contractual right to take over the tunnel - called a right of substitution - if there is no prospect of their debt being serviced.

This would leave Eurotunnel, as a company, with no rights over the tunnel until the banks have been repaid - probably many decades away, if ever.