The state for a marriage between Thales and Atos

The defense group has been monitoring Atos’ cybersecurity activities for a year now. The ministries let Thales maneuver to create a French champion in the sector.

Atos is confused. Ten days ago, the IT services group presented its strategic plan that aims to split into two branches: IT services on the one hand, cloud and cybersecurity on the other. A dismantling that caused a real flight of investors, also shocked by the surprising departure of general manager Rodolphe Belmer. Atos’ share price plunged 40% in ten days and lost 80% in a year.

The government said it was “attentive” to the future of Atos, which provides cybersecurity for the French military and supercomputers for NATO. Three players, already present in this sector, are interested in this nugget: Thales, Orange and Airbus. Three groups of which the French State is the reference shareholder, which will be central to the restructuring of Atos.

“We need to go further and think about reorganizing the sector around two players instead of four,” a former minister recently confided to us.

Creation of a French Champion

Thales is by far the most offensive to take the lead. He’s been eyeing this Atos nugget in cybersecurity for a year now. [Le récit des coulisses sera à lire vendredi sur notre site]. In February, he joined the American fund Bain, owner of France’s Inetum, to consider a takeover of Atos. Immediate refusal of the company and the state calmed the game. “The government does not want an aggressive movement, explains a good expert on the file. Defense and close to the state”.

And Thales enjoys the favor of the government. The group is at the crossroads of the ministries involved in the future of Atos. That of the economy owns 26% of its capital and that of the militaries is the customer for its cybersecurity, combat software and its partner within Naval Group for submarines. Thanks in part to its shareholder Dassault Aviation (25%), its CEO Patrice Caine has all his entries in the “French Pentagon”.

It is also the Directorate-General for Armaments (DGA) that “sounded the alarm three months ago,” explains a source close to the group, as she observed tensions between the director-general of ‘Atos, Rodolphe Belmer, and the president. Bertrand Meunier. She is concerned about the future of this cybersecurity activity and “is still campaigning for the creation of a French champion close to her”, explains a close connoisseur of the “DGA”.

Bercy in the front row

Thales also benefits from the full support of Bercy, the largest shareholder. “Patrice Caine would never have led an offensive in such sensitive areas without the approval of his major shareholders,” explains one of his family members. “A boss who has the State as a reference shareholder does not start without his green light,” confirms a manager of a company in which Bercy is also a shareholder. A senior Thales executive goes even further: “The director of the Treasury sits on the strategic committee and basically validates every strategic move”. Emmanuel Moulin, for his part, “denies playing an active role in this dossier”. His vote weighs all the more as he remains very close to Bruno Le Maire, of whom he was the powerful chief of staff for three years.

In recent months, however, interlocutors from the Ministry of Economic Affairs have also distilled more open messages to the leaders of Atos. “They will not oppose foreign investors as long as the cybersecurity interests are preserved,” says a close friend of the group. A facade reason not to be burdened with protectionism. Even though several investment funds have in reality given up access to the capital of Atos for a year, for fear of taking action against the French state.

The road seems all the clearer for Thales, who is far more determined than his rivals. Airbus lacks motivation. “We want to develop in the field of cybersecurity through partnership, but not through major acquisitions,” explains a manager of the aviation group. It is too far from our profession as an aircraft manufacturer.” Same story with Orange. “The group has just changed its two leaders and does not have the resources to move today,” explains a telecom operator leader who nevertheless makes sure to look at the file. Too bad for Atos, who would have preferred an alliance with Orange to counter Thales’ ambitions.

Matthew Pechberty Journalist BFM Business

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