LONDON/PARIS French oil company Total (TOTF.PA) has chosen four bidders for its TIGF gas network and storage business in southwest France, worth an estimated 2.5 billion euros ($3.2 billion), three sources familiar with the matter said.
French insurer AXA's (AXAF.PA) private-equity arm, EDF's (EDF.PA) nuclear fund, French state bank Caisse des Depots (CDC) and Spanish utility Enagas (ENAG.MC) lead four consortia which will take part in a second round of the auction, the sources said.
Total Chief Executive Christophe de Margerie confirmed on the sidelines of an event in Paris on Friday that the group had received seven bids for TIGF, but he declined to make any further comment.
Total is expected to decide on the new owner for the business around mid-January, the sources said.
The winning bidder will need to have an existing French presence and Total may initially keep a stake of between 5 and 10 percent for social and political reasons, one of the people added.
"It will be tough for non-French candidates," a banking source said.
The transaction, given TIGF's public-service role, has attracted the scrutiny of the French government, which is keen to protect jobs as unemployment rises to 13-year highs.
Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg said on Thursday the government wanted to safeguard TIGF's strength, profitability and employment levels.
Total, which was recently overtaken as France's biggest company by market value by drugmaker Sanofi (SASY.PA), plans to shed 15 billion to 20 billion euros worth of assets by 2014.
Large oil and gas firms have been disposing of low-margin transportation, storage, refining and distribution units to focus on their riskier and more lucrative exploration and production, or "upstream", activities.
Total finance chief Patrick de la Chevardiere said at the end of last month the group was working on several disposals and he hoped to have news on some large asset sales by the beginning of 2013.
AXA Private Equity is bidding for TIGF along with Credit Agricole's (CAGR.PA) Predica insurance unit and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, while CDC has joined with Belgian gas company Fluxys FLUXN.BR.
The EDF grouping includes Singapore's GIC GIC.UL sovereign wealth fund and Italian gas transport group Snam (SRG.MI). Enagas has formed a consortium with Canadian fund Borealis.
Total plans to open "data rooms" containing details of the assets being sold to the four chosen bidders this weekend. Goldman Sachs (GS.N) and Lazard (LAZ.N) are advising Total on the deal, sources told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Benjamin Mallet; Writing by James Regan; Editing by Jason Neely and David Holmes)