May 20, 2018 / 3:00 PM / 3 months ago

UPDATE 1-EU could compensate firms hit by U.S. sanctions over Iran -French minister

* 1996 framework could help European firms in Iran

* EU at loggerheads with U.S. over Iran

* Iran looking for more support from Europe (Adds more comments from Le Maire, further detail)

By Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS, May 20 (Reuters) - France is looking to see if the European Union could compensate European companies that might face U.S. sanctions for doing business with Iran, French finance minister Bruno Le Maire said on Sunday.

Le Maire referred to EU rules dating back to 1996 which he said could allow the EU to intervene to protect European firms against any sanctions imposed by the United States, adding that France wanted the EU to toughen its stance in this area.

In 1996, when the United States tried to penalise foreign companies trading with Cuba, the EU forced Washington to back down by threatening retaliatory sanctions.

"Are we going to allow the United States to be the economic policeman of the world? The answer is no," Le Maire told C News TV and Europe 1 radio on Sunday.

"Strengthening that 1996 rule ... would allow us to take charge ourselves of the cost of any potential sanctions paid by firms, which could therefore be paid for on their behalf by the European Union," added Le Maire.

European companies conducting business in Iran face U.S. sanctions after President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

The 2015 agreement, worked out by the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia, China and Iran, lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear programme. The pact was designed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

The other signatories have indicated that they hope to salvage the nuclear deal.

Le Maire said European companies looking to invest abroad, such as in Iran, could aim to get financing from within Europe, rather than via U.S. dollars or U.S banks.

EU leaders have pledged to try to keep Iran's oil trade and investment flowing but admitted it will not be easy to do so. Iran's foreign minister told the EU's energy chief on Sunday that the 28-country bloc was not doing enough to preserve the benefits for Iran from the 2015 pact.

On May 16, French energy giant Total joined other European companies in signalling a possible exit from Iran in light of Trump's decision.

"There might be some element of arbitration for the European companies in Iran, but ultimately nobody will want to get on the wrong side of U.S. sanctions," said Lorne Baring, chief investment officer at fund management firm B Capital SA. (Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Editing by Mark Potter and Catherine Evans)

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