France Telecom hints at more European acquisitions, Belgium tops list

Having agreed to swallow T-Mobile UK, France Telecom (FT) has dropped heavy hints that Switzerland and Portugal were two countries where partnerships or deals would make sense, to alleviate intense competition.

But the focus would appear to be centred on Belgium where shares in the country's second-largest mobile operator, Mobistar, jumped by nearly seven per cent following speculation that FT was close to making a takeover bid. The notion was given further credence following comments from Gervais Pellissier, FT's CFO, that consolidation would make sense in Belgium. Mobistar is already majority-owned by FT which holds 52.9 per cent of the shares. However, the FT rumour reignited gossip that Mobistar and the Belgium cable operator, Telenet, could form a close partnership. Telenet is keen to become a bigger player in the mobile sector and has already agreed an MVNO deal with Mobistar.

Adding fuel to its expansion plans, Pellissier said that its interests were centred on where Orange had a minority shareholding in a European operator, and not elsewhere in Europe, adding that the main focus remained in Africa and the Middle East, including Zimbabwe and Tanzania. He ruled out a move into South Africa or Nigeria, where the investment required would be too big to justify the risks involved with trying to control operations in those countries.

Having thoroughly stirred up the market, FT has poured cold water on the likelihood that it was again mounting a takeover of the Nordic telecom operator TeliaSonera--which again had seen its share price boosted by industry speculation. FT abandoned an unpopular bid worth around US$42 billion for TeliaSonera last year.

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