Paris investigates 'hoax' over Eurotunnel shares

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The Independent Online

Industrial Correspondent

The Paris bourse is investigating the share price movements of Eurotunnel, the troubled Channel tunnel operator, because of "rumours" surrounding the company over the past few days. The row followed reports, later retracted, by the state-owned news agency, Agence France-Presse, that Eurotunnel had reached agreement with its creditor bankers to reschedule debts.

Patrick Ponsolle, Eurotunnel's co-chairman, called for the inquiry as he refuted the AFP reports. Mr Ponsolle said it was intolerable that such a story could be distributed without verification.

"I am asking for an inquiry because I mean to protect the interests of shareholders, who cannot be victims of such malevolent acts," he said.

AFP said the report was based on a phone call from a man claiming to work with Eurotunnel's public relations department. It quickly withdrew the story pending a comment from Eurotunnel and subsequently said it had been the victim of a hoax.

Mr Ponsolle said Eurotunnel's head office "has no further comment" at this stage.

The debacle comes at a sensitive time for Eurotunnel, which is dogged by rumours of a renewed financial crisis and speculation that it might embark on another round of fund-raising. The company will shortly meet its 225 banks to discuss whether they might advance fresh funds to keep it afloat.

In London, shares in Eurotunnel plunged 28p to 138p on Monday but recovered yesterday to 147p. In Paris they rose to Fr11.70 from Monday's close of Fr11.05.

The jitters began earlier this month when Eurotunnel announced revenues well below expectations for the first half of the year. Sales in the six months of only pounds 104.5m shocked City analysts, who had been looking for pounds 500m in the year. The view is that the poor figures will inevitably mean a restructuring of the company's debt.

Eurotunnel's interest bill is pounds 2m a day, compared with daily revenues of pounds 600,000. A spokeswoman for the company said yesterday: "We are in talks with banks - we are always in contact with the banks - and we will report in October."

The summer season is vital to Eurotunnel, which is taking market share from the ferry companies in spite of problems with breakdowns and strikes. A successful July and August would give it some ammunition in its discussions with the banks.