PARIS (Reuters) - France is to allow private armed guards to protect its shipping fleet against pirates, the government said on Tuesday.
France is one of the main contributors to an international naval force that patrols the Gulf of Aden and the northwestern Indian Ocean to foil pirate attacks launched from Somalia.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the arming of private security forces would make the French merchant fleet more competitive with European rivals.
"We will allow recourse to private teams capable of complementing the navy's missions," Ayrault told the newspaper Ouest France. "There has been a strong appeal from shipowners and we have heard it."
A French government official made clear that the private security agents would be allowed to carry weapons.
Britain, Germany and the United States all allow armed private security teams on vessels sailing under their flags.
While it has become standard for ships to have defenses against piracy, there are still no industry guidelines or even agreement among countries on the use of lethal force by anti-piracy teams, whether military or private.
Although tougher ship security and Western naval patrols have reduced attacks from Somali pirates, French ships are increasingly being targeted in the Gulf of Guinea off west Africa, where France has trade ties with former colonies.
A French-owned Luxembourg-flagged tanker was hijacked by suspected Nigerian pirates off Ivory Coast in February and a French sailor, later rescued, was seized by pirates in June off the coast of Togo.
"It has been two years since we asked for this, so we really welcome the government's decision," said Eric Banel, head of Armateurs de France, the lobby for French shippers.
Ayrault also said that France needed to be able to import fuel products with French-owned tanker fleets.
"The challenge today is to require oil importers into France to do so at least partially under the French flag," Ayrault said.
"It's fundamental for our energy security. In order to secure our energy supply, we cannot rely entirely on foreign fleets."
France is required by law to hold a strategic stock of crude and fuel products equivalent to 90 days of consumption in case of a major supply disruption, as well as a French-flagged naval transport capacity for crude imports.
The law will now be changed to ensure that this transport capacity encompasses refined products to better reflect France's import needs, Banel said, adding that this would support the French shipping sector.
There are currently 10 crude oil tankers and 19 refined oil products transporters operating under a French flag, according to government figures.
(Reporting by Leigh Thomas; Additional reporting by Julien Ponthus and Muriel Boselli; Editing by Kevin Liffey)