Eye on France: Why selling the Paris airports is a major mistake

This train will link the two Paris airports in 15 minutes, one-fifth the time it currently takes in a bus. With trains that fast, who'll want to fly?
This train will link the two Paris airports in 15 minutes, one-fifth the time it currently takes in a bus. With trains that fast, who'll want to fly? DR

The French government is in the process of selling-off its remaining stake in the company which owns Paris’s two main airports. Business paper Les Echos says they're making a big mistake.


The state holds 50.6 percent of the airport shares at the moment. Last month, the National Assembly voted in favour of a complete privatisation. Which means that, if and when the bill passes through the Senate, the French upper house, and the so-called Pacte legislation (that’s an acronym for Action Plan for Business Growth and Change) becomes law, the way will be open for the sale of those government shares to the highest bidder.

There are broadly two points of view, as described in this morning’s business paper, Les Echos.

On one side, there are the state fetishists, condemning the authorities for selling off another valuable piece of national heritage.

In the opposite corner, you have the liberal market cheer-leaders, chirruping about the productivity gains that will suddenly become possible once the dead hand of the state has been hacked away.

Les Echos says the crucial thing to do is to look at what other people have tried.

In the US, all airports are in public ownership; but London’s Heathrow, one of the busiest in the world, is entirely in share-holder hands.

The financial paper says the argument whereby the state must maintain control of the airports in order to protect security is pure hockum. Neither is it true that the Paris deal will result in valuable assets being sold off at bargain prices to investment vulture funds.

As usual, the real question is elsewhere!

Will the now probably inevitable deal increase the economic value produced by the airports . . . and that’s not just a question of the cash return to the shareholders, but also the well-being of the travelers and the broader impact on the Paris region. Noise and traffic-jams on one side; jobs and a general economic boost on the other.

So the government will have to work out a very complex rulebook to make sure that the race for maximum profit does result in an overall economic loss.

But, since the sale period is probably going to cover the next 70 years, the rules will not be easy to formulate . . . who knows what the immediate future of air transport holds, to say nothing of what airports might look like in seven decades.

In the wake of a sale, what will become of long-term transport plans for the Paris region? Should the state continue to pour billions into developing infrastructure which will certainly help travelers but which will also line the pockets of investors?

According to the savants at Les Echos, all this uncertainty suggests that Paris Airports are the wrong thing to be selling.

The business daily says it would be far more logical to off-load Renault, or Peugeot, both car-makers, or the phone company Orange, or even Air France itself.

Each of these businesses operates in a competitive environment, and there’s no underlying state doctrine to be defended. For that matter, it would be more natural to sell the national television service or the public investment bank than the two Paris airports.

Not for the first time, the article concludes, we see the government risking great public and institutional disquiet by getting its priorities back to front.

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