PARIS and ROME — France is keen to strengthen its naval industry and is pursuing cooperation with Italy in a bid to be a leader in building surface warships, according to France’s armed forces minister.
“I will also push for our defense industry,” Florence Parly said. “This is one of the catalysts for European defense and one of the motors for the French economy.”
The minister said she wanted to “give our defense industry the means to develop strongly,” particularly the naval sector. “That is why I am presently working on forming an alliance between the French and Italian naval industries in the area of surface warships with the ambition of building a world leader.”
Pauly was giving the closing speech Sept. 5 at a high-level defense conference at Toulon, southern France.
“This ambitious project was making progress, with the close cooperation of the companies concerned,” she said, adding that she would further address the subject in the next few weeks.
The French and Italian government have previously agreed that the two countries would reach an agreement by Sept. 27 in an attempt to resolve a dispute over the acquisition of STX, a French commercial shipyard, by Italian state-owned company Fincantieri.
The STX yard at Saint-Nazaire, western France, is the only one large enough in France to build an aircraft carrier, prompting concerns over national sovereignty.
Fincantieri, Naval Group and STX could cooperate and become a European leader to compete in the world market for commercial and military shipping, the French and Italian government said after an Aug. 1 ministerial meeting in Rome, where they sought to defuse the row over ownership of the STX yard.
Naval Group is in discussions with Fincantieri for cooperation on a surface warship, according to a spokesman for the French state-controlled shipbuilder. Naval Group has long had experience cooperating with Fincantieri, as the two worked together on the Horizon anti-submarine frigate and the FREMM multimission frigate, he noted.
The French company is also still in talks with the French government and Fincantieri on taking a stake in STX France, a commercial shipyard.
Naval Group may eventually hold 10-15 percent of STX if the French and Italian governments reach an accord on an acquisition by Fincantieri of the commercial yard.
As the Sept 27 summit nears, negotiators have their work cut out since Italian ministers continue to claim state-owned Fincantieri has the right to a majority holding in STX after the yard’s former owner, South Korea’s STX, went bankrupt and Fincantieri was named as the preferred bidder for its controlling stake.
But Paris wants an equal share of the yard.
Despite the row, French talk of building an Italo-French naval champion may tempt Fincantieri CEO Giuseppe Bono to accept a 50 percent share in STX.
Bono has long championed European naval integration, proposing the creation of a “Naval Airbus“ spanning countries that currently host too many small, competing shipyards.‘
On Wednesday, Bono was coy about the future, stating: “We will fight for the consolidation of European industry, which we think is necessary, but the health of our company doesn’t depend on it.
“We have work for the next 10 years, and if certain things don’t happen today, we will be able to see, over that time, if they can take place in another way, on another occasion and with who.”
Hitherto, naval cooperation between Paris and Rome has been patchy. The two governments jointly designed and built their FREMM frigates, but have since competed against each other to sell them in export markets.
It remains to be seen what surface warship Fincantieri and Naval Group could team up on. Italy has recently handed Fincantieri contracts for a series of new naval ships, which should satisfy its fleet needs for years to come.
One major competition on the horizon is the construction of a new frigate for the U.S. Navy.
The service issued a request for information in July for its new frigate, stating it wanted suppliers to base their offers on existing designs in order to get the vessel into service as fast as possible.
Italian Navy chief Adm. Valter Girardelli told Defense News this week he believed the FREMM design would fit the bill for the U.S., and that Fincantieri was responding to the RFI.
Pierre Tran reported from Paris. Tom Kington reported from Rome.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.