Unease as Chinese firms win bid for big French airport stake

A section of an Airbus A350 is pictured at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, December 4, 2014.

PARIS - The planned sale to a Chinese consortium of a 49.99 per cent government stake in a major French airport where Airbus tests and assembles planes has sparked a wave of unease.

Paris announced Thursday that it had decided to sell the 308-million-euro ($381-million) stake in the company that manages Toulouse airport to the Symbiose consortium that is made up of Chinese state-owned group Shandong Hi-Speed Group and Hong Kong-based investment firm Friedmann Pacific Asset Management.

In an interview with local daily La Depeche du Midi, Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron insisted that the airport was not being privatised, pointing out that the state -- which retains a 10.01 per cent stake -- along with local authorities would still be majority owners.

But officials on both sides of the political spectrum expressed their reservations on the planned sale, pointing out that French players had also been in the running to snap up the stake.

"Airports must remain public," tweeted Marie-Noelle Lienemann, a Socialist senator.

"Macron believes he is in Greece where the government sold ports to the Chinese to reduce deficits which continued to increase," she added.

Lienemann was referring to the 2008 signature by Chinese shipping giant COSCO of a 35-year concession to expand container terminals at the Greek port of Piraeus, as the country plunged into a devastating debt crisis.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen also slammed the planned sale, as did Jean-Louis Chauzy, head of the local economic, social and environmental council, which has an advisory role for the elected regional assembly.

"We are selling off the country's general interest," he told France Info radio.

"It was supposed to stay under the authority of the French state, with local authorities and French investors."

The finance ministry said that the Chinese consortium had put forward "an ambitious development project" for the airport that targets an increase in jobs linked to a rise in traffic.

Toulouse-Blagnac airport, the fourth largest in France, is used by European aerospace giant Airbus -- which is headquartered nearby -- to test and assemble planes.

In its statement, the finance ministry said the consortium had promised to take into account the long-term interests of Airbus.

It also pointed out that it was not selling any of the infrastructure such as buildings or runways, which remain the property of the state.

Toulouse airport aims to increase traffic from 7.5 million passengers in 2013 to 18 million by 2030.

The Chinese connection could enable the establishment to become a new point of entry in France of sought-after Chinese tourists, in the face of saturated Paris airports.