Alimentation Couche-Tard founder Alain Bouchard hoped to salvage a $20bn (€16.6bn) offer for Carrefour when he arrived at the French Finance Ministry in eastern Paris.
fter being kept waiting for a brief audience with Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, Mr Bouchard got the message: The proposed deal was dead on arrival, torpedoed by French political opposition.
The meeting on Friday capped a tumultuous week for Couche-Tard and Carrefour. Mr Bouchard, a self-made billionaire who had transformed an obscure Canadian gas-station operator into an empire of 14,200 retail sites through acquisitions, wanted to take the next step. Buying the French grocer would have turned Circle K owner Couche-Tard into a global retail giant, alongside the likes of Walmart.
However, the overture ended only four days after it came to light, and the companies said they’ll seek a looser alliance.
Ceding one of France’s biggest supermarket owners to foreign ownership was impossible at a time when Covid-19 lockdowns underlined the strategic importance of the country’s food supply, Mr Le Maire said.
With regional elections looming later this year and a presidential vote set for 2022, allowing the country’s biggest private employer to fall into foreign hands could have given nationalist leader Marine Le Pen and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon a new cause celebre to attack centrist President Emmanuel Macron.
“It wasn’t the moment to do a deal like that,” said Fabienne Caron, an analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux. “The government had much more to lose than to win. The real reason is politics.”
The companies compounded their miscalculation by blindsiding Mr Le Maire and President Macron.
The finance minister found out about the talks late on Tuesday via a text message from Carrefour CEO Alexandre Bompard, according to a Finance Ministry official who asked not to be named, citing government rules.
The timing was crucial. The two sides were close to signing a letter of intent that they were planning to show to the government, Bouchard said in an interview Monday.
“We thought that we could convince the government that it was good for France, to have us invest in the stores there and the country. But we didn’t have the time to meet with them in advance and explain the industrial plan,” Mr Bouchard said.
“It was a bad timing for us, and the minister of finance took a very strong stand there and it was just too late to turn that around.”
Talks between the two companies began in the autumn, after Couche-Tard failed in an effort to buy Marathon Petroleum’s Speedway gas station network.
Couche-Tard has built from a single store in a Montreal suburb into an operator of convenience outlets from Texas to Hong Kong while Carrefour is known for out of town hypermarkets that sell eveyrthing from baguettes to grass seed.
It has been challenged by online sales and the growth of discounters like Lidl and Aldi.
Its shares had fallen by more than a third in Mr Bompard’s three-and-a half-year tenure.