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Ernest Antoine Selliere (Int'l Edition)

International -- The Stars of Europe -- Agenda Setters

Ernest-Antoine Selliere (int'l edition)

President -- MEDEF -- France

He has never held public office, but Ernest-Antoine Seilliere may be the most effective political figure in France today. With tough rhetoric and a knack for grass-roots organizing, the 62-year-old industrialist has mobilized French employers to demand reforms in the country's labor and welfare systems.

Seilliere is determined to overhaul the employer-financed social programs and rigid labor rules that make France one of the most expensive places in the world to do business. And he's got plenty of clout as the head of the Mouvement des Entreprises de France (MEDEF), a 700,000-member employers' group. Tall and charismatic, with a booming voice, Seilliere strikes a chord with French businesspeople who fear they will lose their competitive edge unless reforms are made quickly. "French business is changing, and Seilliere has the guts and the intelligence to lead this change," says Michel Gurfinkiel, editor of Paris-based business magazine Valeurs Actuelles.

The Socialist government has felt Seilliere's sting, too. Last fall, after he drew 40,000 employers to a protest rally in Paris, the government abandoned plans to dip into employer-paid social security funds to finance a government-ordered transition to a 35-hour workweek. More recently, he shocked the government and labor unions by pledging that employers would quit their longtime role in managing France's $268 billion-a-year social welfare system by yearend unless it is overhauled. And with union membership dwindling to only 5% of private-sector workers and 20% of public-sector workers, he is stepping up pressure on unions to agree to more flexible work rules. Seilliere says he is open to compromises with the government and unions. But, he adds, "we are no longer willing to sit still."

Seilliere is the bluest of blue bloods, scion of a steelmaking family whose holdings date to the reign of Louis XIV. After taking over his family's business in 1976, he sold off unprofitable holdings and took stakes in fast-growing firms such as software company Cap Gemini. At MEDEF, he has pushed traditionally secretive Corporate France toward greater transparency, setting an example in April, when he disclosed the $1 million salary that he receives from his family company.

Might this gifted political organizer run for public office? Probably not. His five-year term at MEDEF, which he promises to complete, will end after France's presidential election in 2002. Meantime, it's a safe bet that France will be hearing a lot more from Seilliere.

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