- banking - Belgium - BNP Paribas - Fortis
AFP - The saga over stricken financial group Fortis was coming to a climax Tuesday as shareholders prepared for a crunch vote on the sale of the biggest Belgian bank to BNP Paribas of France.
Angry shareholders brought the meeting to a halt at one point. Some surrounded the podium where board members were gathered, demanding their resignation, and threw documents.
About 3,300 shareholders were convened in the northern Belgian city of Ghent for the decisive vote, which could end months of uncertainty for the group. A second vote is to be held on Wednesday in the Dutch city of Utrecht.
Some minority shareholders are lobbying hard to block the sale of Fortis Bank, the parent company's former Belgian banking arm that was taken over by the Belgian government.
Chinese insurance giant giant Ping An, which is Fortis Holding's biggest shareholder with a 4.8 percent stake, said over the weekend that it would vote against the sale on grounds that it represented a bad deal.
However, opponents of the deal were dealt a blow hours ahead of the vote when a Belgian court rejected their request for some shareholders' rights to be suspended, which would have strengthened their hand.
Many mom and pop shareholders in Fortis, which was once one of the bluest of Benelux blue chips, have seen their investments all but wiped out since the group was carved up, depriving the parent company of its main assets.
Opponents of the deal have said Belgium is in danger of losing control of its major national enterprises, after electrical utility Electrabel was taken over by GDF-Suez of France.
"Only in Belgium do we sell the jewels for a song," said lawyer Mischaël Modrikamen, who is representing minority shareholders opposed to the deal.
"Fortis' sale is one too many," said Pierre Nothomb, who runs a consultancy advising shareholders.
The vote is the latest chapter in a months-long topsy-turvy saga that has seen the group brought to the brink of collapse and broken up by the Dutch, Belgian and Luxembourg governments.
The Dutch government nationalised Fortis Holdings Dutch bank-assurance activities and Belgium took over Fortis Bank while proposing to sell a 75 percent stake to BNP Paribas.
Many shareholders have complained however that they believe the French giant got the family jewels on the cheap.
The dispute helped bring down Belgium's coalition government in December and the government has twice revised the deal with BNP Paribas in an effort to get it accepted by shareholders.
The second version of the deal was proposed after a shareholders' meeting on February 11 voted against a BNP Paribas takeover of Fortis Bank.
The French bank must secure agreement from both votes in Ghent and Utrecht this week to be able to go ahead. BNP Paribas chairman Baudoin Prot has said his bank will withdraw if it is spurned by either meeting in Belgium or Netherlands.