Last-minute intervention by Quebec’s economy minister fails to win round French government

Canada’s Alimentation Couche-Tard has broken off €16.2bn takeover talks with Carrefour after opposition from the French government over the deal’s potential impact on the country’s food security and jobs could not be overcome, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Couche-Tard co-founder and chairman, Alain Bouchard, met with French finance minister Bruno Le Maire on Friday to try to win him over with mixture of assurances and pledges, including to invest €3bn over five years, no job cuts for two years, and dual stock listings.
It did not work, nor did the intervention hours later by Quebec economy minister Pierre Fitzgibbon, who reminded Mr Le Maire in a call that French rail company Alstom had bought Canada’s Bombardier last year without Canada playing the protectionist card.
The failure of the talks means that Couche-Tard, which is the largest independent owner of convenience stores and petrol stations in North America, will not now join forces with one of Europe’s biggest grocery retailers to create a retail powerhouse worth more than $50bn. The combined group would have been the third-biggest retailer globally after Walmart and Schwarz Group, which owns German discounter Lidl.
France’s opposition to the proposed deal was swift, with Mr Le Maire declaring the deal a threat to the country’s “food sovereignty” barely 24 hours after the talks became public on Wednesday.
The position taken by President Emmanuel Macron’s government ran counter to the business-friendly image it has long sought to project. But with presidential elections looming next year, the politics of allowing one of France’s biggest private sector employers to get bought by foreign company were seen as treacherous.
One person close to the deal said: “The government has been weakened by criticism of their management of the pandemic and the economic crisis so they are reacting defensively. It is a purely political calculation that the opposition would have raked them over the coals for approving the sale of such a big company to a foreign buyer.”
Under French law, the government can review takeovers of domestic companies by foreign buyers in sectors it deems strategic, such as energy, water and telecoms. France has gradually expanded the list of areas covered by the regulation and last year added “food security”.
Carrefour’s three biggest shareholders, who together control about 23 per cent of the stock and benefit from double-voting rights under French securities law, had been open to selling their stakes to facilitate the deal, people close to the deal earlier told the Financial Times.
They include France’s richest man, LVMH billionaire Bernard Arnault and the Moulin family behind department store group Galeries Lafayette.
The end to the talks was first reported by Reuters.