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Proposal to privatise Paris airports highly criticised

The French national parliament is expected to approve the privatisation of French airport company les Aéroports de Paris (ADP) imminently, a decision that is proving controversial.

The change is a key part of the government’s loi Pacte (Plan d'action pour la croissance et la transformation des entreprises; action plan for the growth and transformation of business).

ADP, one of the world’s largest airport groups, currently manages Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle, Paris-Orly, Paris-le-Bourget, and 10 other aerodromes in Ile-de-France.

The new proposal from the Assemblée Nationale means that the State would no longer be required to hold the majority of ADP’s capital - it currently holds 50.6% - opening the door to privatisation.

Economy minister Bruno Le Maire said: “We have the chance to make ADP a world leader, while also cancelling out State debt, and financing future innovation. Let us take this opportunity.”

According to the government, the move will allow it to finance new projects within the technology sector.

Mr Le Maire said: “What is strategic for us, is to finance businesses of the 21st century - artificial intelligence, data storage - not those of the 20th century. We are not selling the ‘family jewels’, we are financing the future jewels in our crown.”

But the decision has been criticised by opponents, who say that it represents “an attack on national heritage”, and say that it will cause economic problems, as well as problems of sovereignty and security.

Critics say that airports bring in a strong source of revenue for the State, and that the last time a major public service was privatised in France - motorways - it led to higher prices for both users and the management companies.

Some have used the example of the controversial 2015 decision to sell most of the State’s share in the Toulouse-Blagnac airport (Occitanie) to a French holding company, comprised of the Chinese state and a Hong Kong investment fund.

The move led to highly-criticised conditions, and was judged it “a failure” by the Cour des Comptes, with the Hong Kong fund now seeking to leave the project.

Some critics of ADP privatisation have even said that the move could compromise the country’s borders, and national security.

Indeed, 218 MPs who oppose privatisation have now signed a proposal to put the question to a public referendum (référendum d'initiative partagée (RIP)), which will require validation from the constitutional council and to be signed by 10% of the electorate (around 4.5 million people).

It will then need to be discussed by MPs within six months; if it not discussed within this timeframe, the referendum will be triggered automatically.

Because of this, the vote has been dubbed “not really a referendum, but rather a request from MPs  who oppose the idea, that the subject be scrutinised more closely, with the support of the people”.

The MPs’ spokesperson, Boris Vallaud, said that he wanted to make it “inconceivable” that ADP would become privatised, and said: “We have found a way to avoid the irreparable.”

This is the first time that the RIP system has been invoked to oppose a government measure. The referendum proposal will now be put before the constitutional council.

Yet, experts say that it appears unlikely that - at this stage - the RIP would receive sufficient support and go through effectively to the public vote.

It would require support from 4.5 million people, which appears unlikely, given that the most-popular online petition of a similar kind in France was against the privatisation of La Poste, which gathered only 2.5 million signatures over six months.

It is more likely that the RIP process will simply force the government to reconsider and discuss the issue again in Parliament.

An online petition against the privatisation of ADP has already gathered more than 156,000 signatures.

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