PARIS (Reuters) - France will allow private security forces to protect its shipping fleet against the threat of piracy, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said in an interview published on Tuesday.
France is one of the main contributors to an international naval force that patrols the waters off Somalia in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean to foil pirate attacks.
Ayrault said the move would put the French shipping fleet on a better footing with European competitors already allowed to use private security.
"We will allow recourse to private teams capable of complementing the navy's missions," Ayrault said in an interview with Ouest France regional newspaper. "There has been a strong appeal from shipowners and we have heard it."
Countries that allow the deployment of private armed security teams on their flagged vessels include Britain, Germany and the United States.
While onboard security has become an integral part of the shipping business, there are still no industry guidelines or even agreement among countries on the use of lethal force by anti-piracy security teams, whether military or private.
Although tougher ship security and western naval patrols has reduced attacks from Somali pirates, French ships are increasingly targeted in Africa's Gulf of Guinea, where France still has strong trade ties with its former colonies.
A French-owned Luxembourg-flagged tanker was hijacked by suspected Nigerian pirates off the Ivory Coast in February and a French sailor was seized by pirates in June off the coast of Togo before he was freed in a rescue operation.
Ayrault also said that France needed to be able to import petrol with French-owned tanker fleets in order to ensure the security of its energy supplies.
"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," he added.
(Reporting by Leigh Thomas; editing by Ralph Boulton)