Political shift

France Takes the 'National' Out of Champions

Bougyes Reuters_distort
Bouygues Télécom cited likely objections from French regulators in rejecting a takeover bid by SFR-Numéricable.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • The French economics minister wants his country to develop its own version of Germany’s famed Mittelstand of small and medium-sized companies.
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  • Facts

    Facts

    • French economics minister Emmanuel Macron has made it clear he is not fond of large national champions.
    • He admires Germany’s Mittelstand of small- and medium-sized companies and wants France to have a similar sector.
    • Telecoms giant Bouygues Télécom rejected a takeover bid by the larger SFR-Numéricable, believing it would not get regulatory approval for the deal.
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    Audio

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France loves protectionism and has a long tradition of building national corporate champions while shunning competition. But now French economic policy is flirting with a completely different role.

Emmanuel Macron, the current economics minister, does not see the need to encourage the creation of large national corporations, but warns instead that they have negative consequences, for example, by restricting competition at consumers’ expense. His beliefs have already played out in the way he criticized the now-canceled merger of France’s second- and third-largest telecoms.

These are signs of a new industrial policy in France. Yesterday’s behaviors are not dead, but they are dwindling. It used to be considered high political art to create national champions. France presented itself to the world through its top companies and their successes were a source of national pride.

For example, under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy – a great admirer of liberal, American economics – France merged credit unions with the savings banks. At the same time, Mr. Sarkozy’s economic advisor, François Pérol, practically gave himself the job of chief executive. Today, Mr. Pérol faces charges of illegally accepting benefits.

But the economics minister in the current Socialist government does not bask in the glory of great French battleships of the economy.

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