Patrick Drahi envisage de procéder à une ouverture du capital de SFR dans le but de diminuer l’endettement d’Altice.

Ce n’est plus un tabou. Patrick Drahi s’est, semble-t-il, résolu à ouvrir le capital de SFR, le joyau d’Altice, son groupe de télécoms et de médias, indique Le Monde ce jeudi. D’après le quotidien du soir, l’opération a été confiée aux banques Lazard et BNP Paribas. On ignore encore la part du capital qui pourrait être cédée. Idem pour le prix souhaité. La finalité de l’opération, elle, est connue : faire remonter du cash pour permettre à Altice d’éponger (un peu) ses énormes dettes, et de repousser au maximum ses échéances de remboursement. Altice France, qui chapeaute l’opérateur SFR, Altice Média (BFMTV et RMC) et XpFibre, son antenne dédiée aux infrastructures, affiche près de 24 milliards d’euros de dettes au compteur. Le groupe est, en outre, confronté à une importante échéance de remboursement en 2025, à hauteur de 1,6 milliard d’euros.

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During a meeting with investors last Wednesday in London, Patrick Drahi praised SFR, referred to as the « Eiffel Tower » of his group, according to Le Monde, citing a participant. The document on which the billionaire relied to impress his audience also supports this view. Various slides, published on the Altice website, aim to convince that the operator with the red square – which has 20.5 million mobile customers and 6.5 million fiber internet subscribers – is destined for a bright future. They highlight, in particular, that the war of promotions, which has greatly affected the industry, is coming to an end, in a context where investments in networks are decreasing.

De mauvaises performances commerciales

However, the bride is not actually that beautiful. In addition to being heavily indebted, SFR no longer has its valuable fixed Internet networks, which are now housed at XpFibre. The operator’s commercial performance has also been disappointing since the beginning of the year. In just the second quarter, SFR lost 29,000 fixed Internet subscribers and 135,000 mobile customers – although Altice argues that these are low-value added subscribers.

Especially, the Altice group has been in the eye of the storm since July 13th, when a vast corruption scandal was revealed. This involves Armando Pereira, the long-time associate and right-hand man of Patrick Drahi, known for his ruthless cost-cutting approach, as well as several executives of the group. The Portuguese justice suspects him of imposing a network of questionable suppliers in several Altice subsidiaries and wrongfully extracting significant amounts of money through this channel.

Following these revelations, several leaders of the group were removed from their positions. Patrick Drahi immediately took on the role of a firefighter. During a telephone conference in early August, he stated that Altice had severed ties with suppliers flagged by the Portuguese justice system, emphasizing that their importance in terms of purchasing volume was negligible.

Priorité au désendettement

Patrick Drahi, who is usually very private, has chosen to step back into the spotlight because the situation could discourage investors. This could potentially undermine the group’s « debt reduction » policy, which is currently considered a top priority, especially in the challenging context of rising interest rates.

Altice is currently in discussions with Morgan Stanley Infrastructure Partners regarding the potential sale of its 92 data centers in France, which are valued at 1 billion euros. In addition to this, there are other assets that may also be sold.

The episode brings to mind the period of 2017-2018, when Altice came very close to collapsing. At that time, SFR’s poor results, burdened by a loss of customers, had led to a stock market crash for the group. Like today, Patrick Drahi had then stepped forward to reassure investors, promising to stop his large credit purchases and to reduce the group’s debt. Altice had eventually managed to overcome this difficult situation. Patrick Drahi once again has no room for error.

Pierre Manière