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Media group Vivendi Universal has announced plans to reduce its stake in Vivendi Environnement by more than a third, in an expected move to reduce its heavy debts.
Vivendi said it would cut its stake in the world's largest water services company to slightly over 40 percent from the current 63 percent through a combined share sale and capital increase benefiting Vivendi Environnement.
"The transaction will be completed when market conditions are appropriate and as soon as practicable," it said in a statement.
It added that the operation would be accretive to Vivendi Universal on both a net and cash basis.
Analysts had widely forecast the move, which besides raising cash for indebted Vivendi Universal, will allow it to strike Vivendi Environnement's debt from the parent company balance sheet to improve its finances.
Vivendi said the operation would involve both the sale of shares in Vivendi Environnement representing slightly more than 15 percent of its value, plus a capital increase of up to 1.5 billion euros through a sale of shares by Vivendi Environnement.
Vivendi said an agreement had been reached with a major shareholder, Esther Koplowitz, under which she would not exercise existing call options when Vivendi Universal's stake falls below 50 percent.
The deal comes just a day after French parliamentary elections in which President Jacques Chirac's centre-right won a sweeping majority to form a government.
The deal is politically sensitive given Chirac's insistence during his campaign that water services remain in French hands.
The Vivendi statement did not mention possible buyers for the stake in question, but French media have suggested a number of French institutional investors could be interested.
The unveiling of the operation came after Vivendi Universal Chairman Jean-Marie Messier was challenged by a French defender of minority shareholders, who asked a court to examine the media giant's two-year acquisition spree.
Colette Neuville, who runs the Association for the Defence of Minority Shareholders (ADAM), said she asked a commercial court to look into whether Vivendi management kept its board properly informed during its flurry of multimedia purchases.
Such an inquiry could be followed by a lawsuit from minority shareholders seeking compensation from Vivendi for damages suffered, she told Reuters.
The move, the third time Neuville has locked horns with Messier, represents a further challenge to the authority of the flamboyant Vivendi CEO, criticised for creating a Goliath loaded down with debt and overseeing a sharp drop in the firm's shares.
Following the high-profile acquisition of entertainment and drinks group Seagram in 2000, Messier has snapped up music Web site MP3.com, publisher Houghton Mifflin, the entertainment assets of USA Interactive Inc., and a stake in U.S. satellite firm EchoStar Communications Corp.
The acquisitions have swelled Vivendi's media debts to 17 billion euros a figure that rises to above 30 billion euros when the debts of utility unit Vivendi Environnement, are included.