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France's Dassault urges Berlin to support Airbus fighter deal

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Tim Hepher and Sabine Siebold
Eric Trappier, Chairman and CEO of Dassault Aviation, poses at the factory of French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation in Merignac near Bordeaux
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By Tim Hepher and Sabine Siebold

PARIS (Reuters) -France's Dassault Aviation urged politicians on Tuesday to approve a deal reached with Airbus over the future of a next-generation combat jet, with Europe's largest defence project riding on German parliamentary support.

After tense negotiations, rivals Dassault and planemaker Airbus agreed this month on a share of the work on the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), an array of manned and unmanned warplanes backed by France, Germany and Spain.

While political differences remain over technology rights, the industrial deal - which sees Dassault win leadership of the core fighter plane while Airbus, representing Germany and Spain, has a two-thirds overall share - is seen as a breakthrough for the project.

"It was difficult, but we found a balance," Dassault Chief Executive Eric Trappier told a news conference given as head of France's GIFAS aerospace industry association.

The agreement must now be presented to governments and in particular faces tight deadlines in Germany, where the country's powerful parliamentary budget committee has a decisive say.

The panel is expected to study the deal in June, shortly before the recess ahead of elections later this year, but some sources described that timetable as ambitious.

Trappier said he hoped parliamentarians would seize on the strategic nature of the European project and set aside disagreements on the issue.

Defence procurement is a sensitive topic in Germany, especially in an election year. A failure to approve the deal could trigger parliamentary negotiations with the government, but with heavy time constraints before September elections, analysts say.

AIRBUS RESHUFFLE

Trappier voiced surprise that his opposite number in the talks, Airbus Defence & Space Chief Executive Dirk Hoke, was leaving the European group and praised him for helping to forge the deal, after what sources said had been a wary relationship.

Airbus said on Monday that Hoke and another top executive planned to leave in July, triggering the biggest executive shake-up at the aerospace group in two years.

Two people familiar with the matter said Hoke, 52, an ex-autos executive seen as part of Europe's next generation of CEOs, had signalled his intention to leave before the COVID-19 pandemic but had been asked to stay to maintain stability.

Faury's three-year term expires next year but there are no indications that the Frenchman - two years Hoke's senior - plans to step down, having steered Airbus through the crisis.

Hoke's replacement is the current Airbus Chief Operating Officer Michael Schoellhorn, a former German military helicopter pilot who like Hoke rose through Germany's auto industry.

Both the FCAS deal and the Airbus reshuffle resulting from Hoke's departure involved delicate compromises, insiders said.

In a surprise move, Spain lost management control of the unit that will run FCAS under Schoellhorn but its top Airbus executive, Alberto Gutierrez, will be on the executive committee with a wider industrial role and continue to run Airbus Spain.

(Editing by Jason Neely and Jan Harvey)