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SFP gets another stay

PARIS — France’s perennially ailing state-owned television production giant Societe Francaise de Production (SFP) has been given yet another publicly funded lease on life following an unsuccessful attempt to privatize the company.

The SFP, which until the early 1980s enjoyed a near monopoly in TV production, hasn’t made a profit since 1986 and last year lost 232 million francs ($40 million). The government has thrown a massive $205 million at the company since 1993 and the latest rescue package could cost the taxpayers more than $155 million.

Now the European Commission has given the French one month to come up with a realistic restructuring plan that guarantees the SFP is a viable operation.

If the EC is unconvinced that the production giant can actually make money without being subsidized, it will renew calls for the SFP to repay the $205 million in state handouts, in the process condemning the company to almost certain closure.

SFP president Roland Fiszel, appointed last month after his predecessor Jacques Bayle failed to get staff backing for his rescue package, is proposing to reduce the 980-strong workforce by 550.

Ironically, that’s more departures than were planned under a privatization bid made by Havas and Generale des Eaux and clearly rejected by SFP workers.

Fiszel is hoping to persuade his staff to back the plan because most of the cuts will come in the form of early retirement — more than half of the SFP staff is over 50 years of age. French Culture and Communications Minister Catherine Trautmann has warned that the government is offering a “last chance to survive” and that the company cannot rely on government largesse in the future. SFP watchers have lost count of the number of times the company has been faced with its “last” chance.

Early indications of Fiszel’s plans suggest he will regroup business activities around production and services and that he hopes to increase revenues from $80 million this year to closer to $90 million in 2000. Fiszel is set to put his proposals to SFP unions on Friday.

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