PARIS (Reuters) - French waste and water firm Veolia VIE.PA has already secured 30% of the capital of its rival Suez SEVI.PA and stands ready to launch an offer on the remainder of the shares but the month-long battle appears far from over as the target strongly reaffirmed its refusal to yield.
Dubbing Veolia's acquisition of the bulk of Engie's ENGIE.PA stake in its capital as "hostile" and "irregular", Suez said on Tuesday it would "use all the means at its disposal to (...) avoid a creeping takeover or de facto control".
Suez, which has repeatedly pleaded for more time to come up with another suitor, has already put up hurdles to fend off Veolia, including the creation a Dutch-based foundation to house its French water business.
And Suez’s main labour unions, echoing management fears of job losses if Veolia gets its way, have lodged a complaint with public prosecutors in Paris because staff representatives had been cut out of discussions between.
Veolia said it would not launch its 18 euros a share tender offer on Suez - the same price it offered Engie for a 29.9% stake valuing the company at 11.2 billion euros ($13.18 billion) - until a cessation of hostilities between the companies and the approval from its target’s board.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire urged Suez and Veolia to reach a friendly agreement, adding the merger between the two companies would not work without one.
“I don’t believe in forced marriages (...) hostile takeovers belong to an outdated form of capitalism” Le Maire told franceinfo radio, adding he was also against any monopoly in the French utilities market.
FRANCE VOTES AGAINST
In a bid to overcome antitrust hurdles, as the two firms manage much of France’s water supply, Veolia confirmed on Monday a plan to sell Suez’s French water business to infrastructure fund Meridiam. It added that Meridiam would guarantee jobs and invest in the business.
It has argued the deal will create a “world super champion” in waste and water management, better equipped to take on rivals emerging from China, while the takeover would also lead to cost savings of 500 million euros from the first year.
Le Maire welcomed the emergence of such a “world-class champion” but said the government was also weary of any job cuts, especially as the economy is suffering from the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In another twist, the French state, a major shareholder in Engie, voted against selling the 29.9% stake to Veolia, given the hostile nature of the takeover, but did not win over the rest of Engie’s board.
The dissent raised eyebrows in France, where the government usually has a strong influence on the companies in which it has a stake.
Bruno Le Maire said the government would keep up the pressure on the companies to reach a friendly agreement.
“We were a few inches away from an agreement (...) now both parties must find the way to get along”, he said.
Suez’s shares, up by almost a third since Veolia announced its interest in the company on Aug. 30, gained almost 4% at 0910 GMT, while Engie and Veolia shares were up 1.1% and 0.5% respectively.
Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Louise Heavens
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