April 2 (Bloomberg) -- A 16.2 million-euro ($21.6 million) bonus awarded to Publicis SA Chief Executive Officer Maurice Levy has become the latest battleground for French presidential candidates in a campaign that has yet to galvanize many voters.
The bonus, which was made public on March 27 and according to Publicis was accrued over eight years to reflect France’s biggest advertiser’s performance, created a ruckus with the leading candidates, Francois Hollande and President Nicolas Sarkozy, flinging attacks at each other over it. The issue highlights the absence of any discussion on subjects France urgently needs to address, said Laurent Dubois, a professor at Institute of Political Studies in Paris.
“The attention the topic is getting is ridiculous,” he said in a phone interview yesterday. “Regulating compensation is a worthy subject, but the candidates are just making a lot of noise. It shows once again that it’s an empty campaign, with no real proposals, only sterile controversy among the candidates.”
With 20 days until the first round of the election, the campaign has focused on everything from not serving Halal meat, or meat slaughtered according to Muslim principles, in public schools and limiting immigrant entries into the country to a 75 percent tax on revenue above 1 million euros. A shooting spree last month by a self-proclaimed jihadist killed seven people, halting the campaigning for a few days. Dubois said candidates are back with populist proposals and personal attacks.
French voters will pick their president for the coming five years in two rounds of votes. The two winners of the 10-candidate first round on April 22 will square off on May 6.
Eighty-one percent of France’s white-collar employees are unhappy with the presidential campaign, in particular with the way economic issues are being addressed, according to a Viavoice poll published today in the daily Le Figaro.
Voter abstention in the first round of elections on April 22 may reach 32 percent, an Ifop poll published yesterday in Le Journal du Dimanche showed.
“It’s an electoral campaign that lacks substance,” Dubois said. “None of the real problems are being debated. The candidates only want to please people.”
The European debt crisis has slowed economic growth in France like elsewhere in the region. The Labor Ministry said March 26 that the number of French jobseekers rose in February for the 10th month to 2.87 million, a 12-year high. The unemployment rate is near 9.8 percent. A lack of competitiveness added to the widening of France’s trade gap last year to a record 69.6 billion euros from about 42.5 billion euros in 2007.
Publicis’s Levy has a been proponent of higher taxes for the rich, co-signing an open letter in “Le Nouvel Observateur” magazine in August entitled “Tax Us.” He has still criticized Socialist candidate Hollande for his 75 percent “millionaire tax,” saying it will drive entrepreneurs away from the country.
Hollande, who early in his campaign said his “enemy is finance,” and once said he didn’t “like rich people,” on March 27 called Levy’s bonus “unacceptable.” His party said it was “obscene.”
Sarkozy, seeking to lose his “President Bling-Bling” and “candidate of the rich” labels, blamed Hollande’s “gauche caviar,” or “champagne socialist” friends for Levy’s bonus. Elizabeth Badinter, the wife of a former minister in Socialist President Francois Mitterrand’s government, is the biggest shareholder in Publicis with an 11 percent stake. She’s also the chairman of its supervisory board.
“Mr. Hollande, it is shareholders who decide on remuneration, and they are your friends,” Sarkozy said in a speech on March 28. “The champagne Left, the bohemian-bourgeois Left has no morality lessons to give us.”
Hollande’s lead over Sarkozy has narrowed. A survey by LH2 published yesterday for Yahoo, showed him winning 28.5 percent in the first round, 2 points lower than in the previous poll, while Sarkozy remained stable at 27.5 percent. Hollande would win the second round with 54 percent, compared with 45 percent for Sarkozy, according to the poll.
The comments from the candidates are evidence of France’s uneasy relationship with wealth, said Dubois.
“We consider the rich as aristocrats, and since we can’t chop their heads off anymore, we want to slash their pays,” Dubois said. ‘It’s hypocrisy. It’s a false debate.”
Publicis, based in Paris, issued a statement on March 29, defending its decision, saying the company’s growth “is due in large part” to Levy’s work over the last 15 years. It has grown to a company with 54,000 employees from 6,000 in 1996.
“The remuneration attributed to Maurice Levy is linked to the performance of the company,” Laurence Parisot, the head of Medef, the French employers’ association, said on i-Tele channel yesterday. “Publicis, which has exceptional results, is one of the biggest French companies and most importantly, is a world leader in the advertising business. What isn’t acceptable is high compensation when companies are in trouble.”
To Parisot, the issue highlights France’s hostility to job-creating entrepreneurs.
“It’s strange that we always seem to be speaking of bosses, never of entrepreneurs,” she said. “I wish in the speeches of the presidential candidates, the word “entrepreneur,” the expression “esprit d’entreprise” were used more often. The wealth of our country will primarily come from there.”
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