French President Emmanuel Macron. Picture: AFP/LUDOVIC MARIN
French President Emmanuel Macron. Picture: AFP/LUDOVIC MARIN

On Thursday, French lawmakers gave a green light for the privatisation of three Paris airports, part of President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to fund innovation and pay down debt.

Opposition parties have cried foul over the government’s plans to sell all or part of its stake in the operator of the Charles de Gaulle, Orly and Le Bourget airports, accusing it of selling off strategic assets.

But a bill allowing the state to give up its majority stake sailed through a near-empty French national assembly, with 39 voting in favour to seven against. The French state owns 50.63% of the shares in Aéroports de Paris, one of the world’s biggest airport operators in terms of passenger numbers.

Macron, a former investment banker, wants to invest the proceeds of the sale in an innovation fund — a key campaign promise — and reduce the public debt, which stood at 99% of GDP in the second quarter.

MPs also voted to privatise the lottery and scratch-cards monopoly Française des Jeux, on condition that the state retain a minimum 20% shareholding. The government also plans to reduce the state’s stake in energy group Engie.

Altogether, the centrist government hopes to raise €10bn, the bulk of which would go towards investment in artificial intelligence (AI), automation and other new technologies.

“We want to change from a dividends approach to one of investing in the future,” economy minister Bruno Le Maire told lawmakers on Wednesday, adding that the state would award a 70-year concession to run the airports according to “strict terms, notably concerning tariffs”.

‘Clearance sale’

Opposition lawmakers on both the left and right have accused the government of selling off state jewels. “It feels like a big clearance sale of the nation’s assets,” Philippe Gosselin of the right-wing Republicans said.

In the past 20 years, several leading French companies have fallen into private hands. They include France Télécom, Air France, the bank Credit Lyonnais and the Saint-Nazaire shipyards in western France.

While the main aim of the new wave of asset sales is to free up funds to promote innovation, the government is also anxious to trim its borrowing needs. The public debt amounted to 99% of GDP in the second quarter, compared with a first-quarter eurozone average of 86.8%. EU members are supposed to respect a limit of 60%.