For a year, the defense group has been keeping tabs on Atos’ cybersecurity activities. The ministries let Thales maneuver to create a French champion in the sector.
Atos is in disarray. Ten days ago, the IT services group presented its strategic plan which aims to split into two branches: IT services on the one hand, the cloud and cybersecurity on the other. A dismantling that has caused a real flight of investors, also frightened by the surprise departure of the general manager Rodolphe Belmer. Atos stock price plummeted 40% in ten days and suffered an 80% loss in one year.
The government said it was “attentive” to the future of Atos, which supplies cybersecurity to the French army and supercomputers to NATO. Three players, already present in this sector, are interested in this nugget: Thales, Orange and Airbus. Three groups in which the French state is the main shareholder who will be at the heart of the restructuring of Atos.
“We have to go further and think about reorganizing the sector around two players instead of four,” a former government insider 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. [Le récit des coulisses sera à lire vendredi sur notre site]. In February he joined the American fund Bain, owner of the French Inetum, to consider the acquisition of Atos. The immediate refusal of the company and the State calmed the game: “The government does not want an aggressive movement, explains a good connoisseur of the dossier. Defensive and close to the State”.
And Thales has the favor of public authorities. The group is positioned at the crossroads of ministries interested in the future of Atos. The Economy holds 26% of its capital and the Armies is its client for its cybersecurity, combat software and its partner within the Naval Group for submarines. Thanks also to its shareholder Dassault Aviation (25%), its CEO Patrice Caine has all its inputs in the “French Pentagon”.
It is also the Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) that “rang the alarm bell three months ago”, explains a source close to the group, when he observed the tensions between the director general of Atos, Rodolphe Belmer, and the president , Bertrand Meunier. She is concerned about the future of this information security business and “is still fighting for the creation of a French champion close to her” explains a good connoisseur of the “DGA”.
Bercy in the front row
Thales also benefits from the full support of Bercy, its 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 relatives. “A boss who has the state as a major shareholder does not leave without its green light” confirms an executive 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 validates, in fact, any strategic movement”. For his part, Emmanuel Moulin “denies having had any active role in this dossier”. His voice weighs all the more as he remains very close to Bruno Le Maire, of whom he was a powerful cabinet chief for three years.
However, in recent months, even the interlocutors of the Ministry of Economy have distilled more open messages at the top of Atos. “They will not oppose foreign investors as long as cybersecurity interests are preserved,” specifies a close friend of the group. A facade speech to not be taxed with protectionism. Even if in reality several investment funds have renounced for a year to enter the capital of Atos, fearing a clash with the French state.
The road seems even clearer for Thales, who is much more determined than his rivals. Airbus lacks motivation. “We want to develop in cybersecurity through partnerships but not through large acquisitions, explains a manager of the aviation group. It is too far from our profession as an aircraft manufacturer”. Same story at Orange. “The group has just changed its two top management and doesn’t have the means to move today,” explains an executive of the telecommunications operator who in any case ensures that he sees the dossier. Too bad for Atos, who would have preferred an alliance with Orange to counter the ambitions of Thales.