Pressure grows on Pinault to declare interest in Suez

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The Independent Online

Pressure grew yesterday on the French billionaire François Pinault to state clearly whether he had predatory designs on the water and energy company Suez.

The utility giant - the object of bid speculation and political manouevres for the past 10 months - dismissed as "vague and imprecise" a formal declaration yesterday morning that M. Pinault was "keeping all options open".

Suez remains officially committed to a government-brokered merger with the state-owned Gaz de France, even though the deal has been blocked in the courts and frozen by a French state watchdog, the Conseil Constitutionel.

There have been suggestions that M. Pinault is operating with the blessing of his friend, President Jacques Chirac - something strongly denied by the Elysée Palace. In any case, Suez made it clear again yesterday that it regarded M. Pinault's interest as unwelcome.

M. Pinault's family holding company, Artemis, was asked last week by the French market regulator, l'Autorité des Marchés Financiers (AMF), to clarify its intentions towards Suez. In a statement before the Bourse re-opened after the New Year holiday yesterday, Artemis said it had made no decision on a possible Suez bid but that "all options remain open".

The French business magazine Capital reported on its website last week that M. Pinault was planning to buy Suez for about €70bn and make a rapid profit by breaking up the company. He would offer the energy assets to Gaz de France, sell off other elements and keep the water holdings, it was reported.

After the press report, Suez asked the AMF to demand a statement of M. Pinault's intentions - something which the water and energy company repeated after his declaration yesterday.

The future of Suez SA, a company founded in the 19th century to help build the Suez canal, has been a political football in France since February. Interest from the Italian energy company Enel prompted the French government to announce it had long been working on a merger between Suez and GDF to create a domestic energy champion.

Since such a merger would have denationalised GDF, there was a storm of political opposition on the Left but also from many members of the centre-right majority in the National Assembly. Last month the deal was frozen by the constitutional council until after the presidential elections in April and May.

Many commentators in France believe the GDF-Suez merger is, in effect, dead. Neither the government nor the two companies have been prepared to say so in public.

A move for Suez by M. Pinault, whose family holdings control Printemps, Gucci and Christies, would be a return to the predatory approach on which M. Pinault, 70, founded his fortune: snapping up undervalued companies and breaking them up for a rapid profit. Often, in the past, M. Pinault, a self-made billionaire, has operated with the blessing of the French authorities. On this occasion, he appears to be operating alone.

His empire

François Pinault's holding company, Artemis, holds 43 per cent of PPR, the French retail giant that has been reinventing itself as a luxury brands group.

The business sold the French department stores Printemps last year, but still owns the records and books stores Fnac and the mail order business including La Redoute.

Artemis also has major holdings in the auction house Christie's and the fashion house Gucci.