May 9, 2019 / 4:45 PM / 3 months ago

French airport privatization delayed by referendum bid

PARIS (Reuters) - Shares in French airport operator ADP closed nearly six percent lower after the constitutional council approved plans for a referendum that could delay or block the government’s plans to sell shares in the company.

An Aeroports de Paris logo hangs on the wall inside Charles de Gaulle airport, operated by Aeroports de Paris, in Roissy, France, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

The government wants to sell part of the state’s majority stake in ADP - the operator of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports - but is facing broad opposition against the plan due to concerns over the loss of an income stream and loss of influence in the transport sector.

A group of opposition parliamentarians on Thursday won the right to launch a rarely used referendum procedure to block the sale of the 50.6 percent stake, which is worth about 9 billion euros ($10.10 billion).

“The proposed referendum ... is in line with the constitution,” the Constitutional Council said in a statement.

On the margins of an EU summit in Romania, President Emmanuel Macron declined to comment on the decision but indicated the government would suspend the sale process during the referendum procedure.

“The council has spoken, things now have to run their course,” he said.

Roland Lescure, president of the French Parliamentary Committee on Economic Affairs and member of Macron’s LREM party, said the government would take no decision on ADP for now.

“Whatever happens, we will wait till autumn, winter or even next year to start anything,” he told France 2 television.

The ADP referendum proposal is the first attempt to use a procedure allowed under a 2008 revision of the French constitution, which allows referendums under strict conditions.

Organizers need to win the backing of a fifth of the members of parliament, get the Constitutional Council’s green light and then obtain signatures of 4.7 million voters - a tenth of the electorate - over the internet over a nine-month period.

Political analysts say it would be difficult but not impossible to get that many signatures to block the sale.

As part of planned measures to placate the “yellow vest” protest movement against his policies, President Emmanuel Macron is considering easing the requirements for calling a referendum in a constitutional reform scheduled for this summer.

The proposal for a referendum on ADP was launched in April by 248 socialist, conservative, far-left and other MPs and senators who argue that a further privatization of ADP would reduce state dividend income, limit government influence on strategy and risk impacting passenger comfort.

France’s centrist government, which has referred to the referendum as “political tactics”, wants to sell state assets in order to finance a 10 billion euro innovation fund as well as to pay off state debt.

It also wants to sell stakes in state lottery FDJ (Française des Jeux) and gas and power group Engie.

Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Myriam Rivet and Geert De Clercq; Writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Richard Lough

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