Vivendi en garde against renewed Vodafone bid for SFR

Vivendi has put a €20bn (£14bn) price tag on its stake in France's largest mobile operator, in a move designed to ward off a fresh bid from Vodafone.

SFR, which is 55.8 per cent owned by Vivendi, represents the final piece in Vodafone's jigsaw as it aims to seize control of mobile operators in every big European country.

Vodafone, which owns 43.9 per cent of SFR, suffered a rare defeat in December 2002 when Vivendi fought off an unsolicited bid for a controlling stake. But Vodafone's new chief executive, Arun Sarin, who replaced Sir Christopher Gent in July, has made it clear that he is still interested in SFR. Well-placed sources said that Vodafone would launch a fresh assault this year.

However, Vivendi sources have said in private that its stake is now worth up to €20bn, which would value SFR at €35.8bn. This is nearly three times its value in 2002 when Vivendi defeated Vodafone by buying up BT's minority stake in SFR.

Since then, the two sides claimed to have patched up their relationship and they simplified the structure of SFR in October.

Vivendi is desperate to cling on to SFR, which is highly profitable. Last month, Vivendi posed its first net profit for 12 months on the back of the strong performance at SFR. The French firm is selling its Universal entertainment business to America's NBC.

Many analysts believe that Vivendi would be lucky to get €20bn for its investment in SFR. Nevertheless, it poses a problem for Vodafone. If it wants control of SFR then it will have to negotiate with Vivendi from a high mark. Having supported Vodafone though its acquisition spree of the last three years, some investors would like to see the company instead return more cash to shareholders.

Mr Sarin may have to spend a long time convincing the City and shareholders of the merits of a second tilt at SFR.

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