Italy Increases Drive Against Foreign Takeovers

Italy has stepped up a campaign against French buy-outs of Italian companies, drawing up a bill aimed at thwarting unwanted foreign takeovers and opening a tax probe into two deals.

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The moves come amid a backlash against whole or partial takeovers by French companies of energy group Edison, jeweler Bulgari and dairy company Parmalat.

In a sign that the backlash is affecting business plans, Federico Ghizzoni, chief executive of UniCredit, said he could pull the sale of the bank’s asset manager Pioneer, which is valued at €2 billion - €3 billion ($2.8 billion - $4.2 billion).

Pioneer, which is in the final stages of a lengthy auction, has attracted bids from French companies Amundi, a joint venture between Société Générale and Crédit Agricole, and Natixis.

Mr Ghizzoni told the Financial Times that he did not feel under political pressure in reaching a decision about the sale of Pioneer but would be taking it at “a moment of dispute between Italy and France”.

Italy’s cabinet agreed on Wednesday to put before parliament a bill that will define telecoms, food, defense and energy as strategic in an effort to staunch unwanted foreign takeovers. The bill, led by Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, is intended to mirror what Rome believes is a French initiative.

The bill would allow the renewal of the boards of companies to be delayed for up to two months. This would have implications for Parmalat, whose board was due to come under the control of French group Lactalis next month following the acquisition of 29 percent.

The government was putting the finishing touches to the bill late on Wednesday. One proposal being considered by cabinet was to freeze the voting rights of all shareholders in companies deemed strategic.

Italy’s tax agency announced it was probing Lactalis’s purchase of a stake in Parmalat and the acquisition of a 51 percent holding in Bulgari by LVMH.

An aide to Eric Besson, French industry minister, said Italy’s moves went beyond measures conceived in the past by Paris. “In France, the 2005 decree on strategic sectors did not include agribusiness, which is therefore not seen as strategic in the sense of the decree.”

The European Commission said it would “continue to monitor the implementation of internal market and competition laws”.