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Suez is preparing a counter-attack on all fronts to escape Veolia

The board of directors is scheduled this Monday afternoon. At 41e floor of the Suez tower, located in the business district of La Défense (Hauts-de-Seine). Around the large table thirteen people will take their places. On the agenda, the different options to respond to the sale of 30% of Suez shares by the energy company Engie to the long-standing competitor: Veolia, French number 1 in water distribution and waste treatment. The operation was tied on October 5 in exchange for a check for 3.4 billion but against the advice of the state, reference shareholder of Engie, with 24% of the capital. She was certainly suspended in summary proceedings by justice on October 9, after an appeal launched by the representatives of Suez employees for lack of prior information on the planned buyout by Veolia. But this first symbolic victory remains provisional, the group of Antoine Frérot having immediately appealed, considering that “This decision does not call into question the ownership of the shares acquired by Veolia on October 6”.

Since then, the Suez staff – led by the chairman of the Suez board of directors, Philippe Varin, and the group’s general manager, Bertrand Camus – fades his weapons, determined not to let Veolia eat the 70% of the remaining capital in order to become the sole owner. If the management of the French number 2 in water is determined to do battle, pugnacity does not animate each member of the board of directors with the same intensity. The most determined to return blow for blow are those which certain parties to the fight have dubbed “The four witches”. In alphabetical order: Miriem Bensalah Chaqroun, president of Moroccan employers, Delphine Ernotte, president of France Télévisions in the civilian sector, Isabelle Kocher, ex-number 2 of Engie who was unceremoniously pushed towards the exit at the beginning of the year, and Anne Lauvergeon, who was the patron of the nuclear group Areva.

In contrast, Philippe Varin, the chairman of the board, is seen as the most inclined to negotiation or even compromise. So much so that during a previous meeting, one of the directors representing the employees saw fit to ask him if negotiations were underway with the long-standing enemy Veolia. Varin replied in the negative and his words were mentioned in the minutes of the meeting in case… Bertrand Camus, the operational boss of Suez who exposed himself enormously by posing as a rampart against the “dismantling” of the group planned by Veolia, remains determined to lead the guerrilla to the end.

New legal cartridges

During this new board of directors on Monday at Suez, a duo of lawyers from two of the most prestigious Parisian business law firms must also speak. Bertrand Cardi and Benjamin Kanovitch, nicknamed “B and B”, will expose the various legal and therefore judicial cartridges that the board of directors of Suez could shoot to counter Veolia. The first of these is on the ground of “disloyalty”. The buyout of the 30% of Suez would have been carried out with such rapidity and total hostility that the company would not have had time to turn around to offer an alternative to its shareholder Engie, eager to sell his shares. “There is therefore an asymmetry in favor of the one who prepared the operation”, detail at Release a source very familiar with the ongoing battle. This “disloyalty” could therefore be brought to justice.

Another offensive could be carried out in the area of ​​stock market law. Suez is convinced that if Veolia paid 18 euros per share to recover 30% of the capital, it will not offer the shareholders as much of the remaining 70% in a takeover bid. The latter would be harmed and could therefore demand accounts from the Autorité des marchés financiers (AMF). Finally, another fuse could be lit regarding the lack of information from employees. “The management of Engie was invited to speak to the representative bodies of Suez and it declined”, continues this same source, before concluding: “In France, we consult and listen to employees before signing a sale.” It is also on this basis that the inter-union of Suez obtained success in summary proceedings before the Paris court on October 9.

Employee representatives have also opened another front, this one political. They undertook the tour of the political leaders in order to ask them for visible support. They were partially heard in particular by Pierre Person, LREM deputy from Paris. The parliamentarian has tabled a bill in which he asks that hostile takeovers are prohibited during the health emergency. The text also opens up the possibility for local authorities to terminate a current contract with a water distributor or a waste treatment company, if it is the subject of a takeover. “This affair is a story of influence and big money. This kind of thing cannot happen again ”, considers the parliamentarian to justify his text. He must nevertheless, despite the 100 signatures collected, be persuasive with the group leaders in the National Assembly. For the time being, this bill has not passed the examination in committee and has not received the approval of Bercy.

Sensitive matter

On the other hand, a commission of inquiry could see the light of day in the Senate. The presidential party is not in the majority and this assembly is the representative of local communities. A round of questions could also be launched in the direction of the Elysee. If the Minister of the Economy has taken a stand against the haste with which Engie sold its stake in Suez, what about the Elysee? Was the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, informed well in advance of the operation before giving his approval to the CEO of Veolia, Antoine Frérot? This is the meaning the accusing letter sent on October 2 by Arnaud Montebourg to the Prime Minister, Jean Castex: for the former Minister of Productive Recovery, “This affair looks like an oligarchic distribution of advantages in a restricted circle of privileged friends of power” … On the Suez side, there is insistence on a meeting scheduled for July 17 between the secretary general of the Elysee, Alexis Kohler, and the president and general manager of Suez, Philippe Varin and Bertrand Camus. However, this meeting would have finally been canceled, because on that date Veolia had already contacted the Elysee Palace to announce its plans to take over. Contacted by Release, a spokesperson for the presidency is unable to confirm this cancellation and simply refers to a courtesy meeting with Bertrand Camus

In any event, the government now seems to no longer want to get involved in this sensitive affair. Friday, in Bercy, Martin Vial, the director in charge of all the holdings of the State shareholder seemed to want to turn the page: “Let’s move on to something else”, he told Release. In the meantime, perhaps the next twist in this water story, in which Veolia does not intend to let go of its prey, while Suez has decided to do everything in its power not to be swallowed up.


Franck Bouaziz

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