Paris - Billionaire Patrick Drahi’s Altice SA made an offer to acquire France’s third-largest mobile-phone company from Bouygues SA.
The proposal was made through Altice’s Numericable-SFR unit, Luxembourg-based Altice said in a statement on Monday. Drahi is bidding more than 10 billion euros ($11.4 billion) for Bouygues Telecom, people with knowledge of the matter said on Sunday. Bouygues’s board will meet June 23 to discuss the proposal, they said.
Iliad SA, a smaller carrier controlled by Xavier Niel, is in exclusive talks with Numericable-SFR to acquire a portfolio of assets, it said in a separate statement.
A combination of Numericable-SFR and Bouygues would create a company with more than 30 million mobile subscribers and revenue of over 15 billion euros to challenge market leader Orange SA, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
While informal talks have been under way for months, negotiations accelerated in the past two weeks, the people said. Drahi, who beat Bouygues last year in a bidding war for SFR, decided to move more quickly as he’s concerned that possible interest-rate increases and market volatility due to Greek bailout talks may make it more costly to finance a bid, they said.
Drahi, whose holding company Altice controls Numericable- SFR, is returning his focus to Europe after Altice agreed to acquire control of US cable provider Suddenlink Communications in a deal valued at more than $9 billion last month. The 51- year-old continues to seek out assets to expand his telecommunications empire that stretches from France, Israel and Portugal to the Caribbean.
Drahi has secured financing for the Bouygues Telecom bid, the people said. The offer would be paid in cash, with a loan from banks including BNP Paribas SA and JPMorgan Chase & Company, the people said.
Telecommunications and cable companies are consolidating and taking advantage of cheap financing as they face increasing pressure to maintain profit growth. In May, Charter Communications agreed to buy Time Warner Cable for about $55 billion - a deal made more expensive by last-minute competition from Drahi. The French tycoon eventually said Altice didn’t make a bid because it wasn’t ready for an acquisition of that size.
Any deal for Bouygues Telecom is likely to face scrutiny from regulators, as well as potential pushback from the French government. Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday, after Journal du Dimanche reported the offer, that “the time isn’t right”.
“Consolidation isn’t advisable for the sector,” Macron said in a statement. “Employment, investment and giving customers the best possible service should be the priority.”
Just last week, the European Union’s top antitrust official, Margrethe Vestager, warned that she may take a tougher stance than her predecessor on the wave of mergers among telecommunications companies. Regulators will likely require the enlarged entity to sell some assets for the deal to be approved, one of the people said.
A successful combination of SFR with Bouygues would cut the number of network providers in France to three from four, following what has happened in Germany, Austria, Ireland, and more recently been proposed in the UK.
SFR, Bouygues, Iliad and Orange discussed a similar plan late last year before talks fell apart, the people said. That preparation helped Drahi move faster this time, they said.
Orange isn’t part of any talks or deals at this point, but is open to discussions about consolidation in France, said a spokesman for the country’s biggest phone company.
The French phone carriers will also have to reassure the country’s government that they will bid in the upcoming 700 megahertz spectrum auction to allow the state to raise its budgeted revenue from that sale, the people said.
* With assistance from Francois de Beaupuy in Paris and Andrea Rothman in ToulouseBloomberg