* Private security to help French shippers compete - PM
* Wants French-flagged oil tankers to secure oil supplies
PARIS, Dec 3 (Reuters) - France will allow private security forces to protect its shipping fleet against the threat of piracy with armed guards, the French government said on Tuesday.
France is one of the main contributors to an international naval force that patrols the waters off Somalia in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean to foil pirate attacks.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the move would put the French shipping fleet on a stronger footing with European competitors that are already allowed to use private security.
"We will allow recourse to private teams capable of complementing the navy's missions," Ayrault said in an interview with Ouest France regional newspaper. "There has been a strong appeal from shipowners and we have heard it."
A French government official specified that the private security agents would be allowed to be armed.
Countries that allow the deployment of private armed security teams on their flagged vessels include Britain, Germany and the United States.
While defences against piracy have become standard in the shipping business, there are still no industry guidelines or even agreement among countries on the use of lethal force by anti-piracy security teams, whether military or private.
Although tougher ship security and western naval patrols have reduced attacks from Somali pirates, French ships are increasingly targeted in Africa's Gulf of Guinea, where France still has strong trade ties with former colonies.
A French-owned Luxembourg-flagged tanker was hijacked by suspected Nigerian pirates off the Ivory Coast in February and a French sailor, later rescued, was seized by pirates in June off the coast of Togo.
Ayrault also said that France needed to be able to import petrol with French-owned tanker fleets.
"The challenge today is to require oil importers into France to do so at least partially under the French flag," Ayrault said.
"It's fundamental for our energy security. In order to secure our energy supply, we can not rely entirely on foreign fleets," he added.
France currently has 10 crude oil tankers and 19 refined oil products transporters under its flag, according to French government figures.