France will temporarily nationalise its biggest shipyard after failing to agree with its prospective Italian owner on a deal to share control of the site, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire announced Thursday.
"We have taken the decision to exercise the state's right of pre-emption on STX," Le Maire said, insisting it was just a "temporary" move while France continued negotiations with Italy on shared ownership of the firm.
Le Maire said the decision was aimed at protecting France's "strategic interests".
The shipyard in the western port of Saint-Nazaire -- which has turned out some of the world's biggest cruise liners and also builds warships -- had unique know-how that should not be lost to abroad, he argued.
"We want to assure the workers, but also the region, its customers and sub-contractors and all the French people that the yard's exceptional skills will remain in France," he said.
Le Maire estimated the cost of the operation to the state at "around 80 million euros" and said it would be recouped when Paris reached an agreement with Italy's state-owned shipbuilder Fincanctieri on splitting ownership.
France is pushing for a 50-50 split between Fincantieri and STX's French shareholders -- a proposal rebuffed by Italy.
In April, then French president Francois Hollande had approved the sale of the shipyard by South Korea's STX Shipbuilding.
The deal gave Fincantieri a controlling stake in the facility in return for which Fincantieri gave guarantees on jobs.
But on taking office in May centrist President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to renegotiate the deal.
Le Maire denied that the nationalisation sent a protectionist message that contradicted Macron's campaign promise to defend free trade.
"I don't think that the message sent is one of being closed. I think it's a signal of our desire to defend our strategic interests" he said, adding he was hopeful of reaching a deal with Italy "in the coming weeks."