The French government will allow private firms to help in the struggle to protect the country's shipping fleet against the threat of piracy in the waters off the coast of Africa.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has vowed to put France's maritime fleet on a stronger footing to combat the threat of armed gangs, in order to help France keep up with its European competitors.

"We will allow recourse to private teams capable of complementing the navy's missions. There has been a strong appeal from ship owners and we have heard it," said Ayrault in an interview with Ouest France regional newspaper.

French ships are increasingly targeted in the Gulf of Guinea where France still has strong trade connections with its former colonies.

In February a French-owned Luxemburg tanker was hijacked by suspected Nigerian pirates off the Ivory Coast while a French sailor was seized by pirates in June off the coast of Togo.

The sailor was later rescued but these incidents seem to have convinced French policymakers that they must act to safeguard the nation's shipping fleet in that part of the world.

Ayrault highlighted the need to be able to import petrol through French-owned tanker fleets.

"The challenge today is to require oil importers into France to do so at least partially under the French flag. It's fundamental for our energy security. In order to secure our energy supply, we cannot rely entirely on foreign fleets," he said.

Tougher ship security and western naval patrols have reduced attacks from Somali pirates but the focus of piracy seems to have shifted from East to West Africa.

For instance, in October the International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau (IMB) revealed that piracy on the world's seas was at its lowest third-quarter level since 2006, yet warned of the threat of continuing violent attacks off the East and West coasts of Africa.

Hijackings off Somalia, for example, fell by half in 2012 compared with 2011 with only 14 ships successfully boarded. However, IMB reported a sharp rise in activity in West Africa in 2012 with 58 incidents off the Gulf of Guinea, which is the area where France has vital interests at stake.

This included 10 hijackings and 207 crew members taken hostage with 27 incidents in Nigerian waters and 15 in Togo.