If the lofty executives who run France's old-boy companies are taking more notice of shareholders, it's due largely to a petite, 58-year-old economist named Colette Neuville. From her 19th-century farmhouse near Chartres, where she lives with her retired civil-servant husband and several cats, Neuville is campaigning to force new accountability on a reluctant France Inc.
The feisty mother of five jumped into the governance game in 1990, when a Paris brokerage that held her modest stock account went broke. She formed an association to rescue small clients' savings. It snowballed into France's first big shareholder advocacy body: the Association for the Defense of Minority Shareholders.
The cream of French business has come under Neuville's attack, in and out of court: Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, Euro Disney, and Banque Pallas-Stern. Mistreatment of minority shareholders in takeovers is a common complaint. Her campaigns have led regulators to tighten takeover rules, and executives credit her with making le corporate governance an issue. Recently she was named a director of the investment bank Paribas.
Crusading is Neuville's second career. She did economic research for a French tiremaker and NATO before staying home for 20 years to raise her children. She owns few shares herself, she says, because of her modest means: "We live off my husband's pension, and I travel second-class with a family discount." She'll never get French executives to follow suit. But as France's godmother of governance, Neuville is forcing fresh air into a musty system.