French CEOs: 'Help!'

Axa's CEO: We're falling behind
Henri de Castries, chief executive officer of Axa, Europe's second-largest insurer Photograph by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

When some German politicians called on French President François Hollande recently to step up the pace of economic reform in France, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble sprang to Hollande’s defense in Berlin, saying it was wrong to call Europe’s second-largest economy the “sick man” of the region.

The heads of France’s biggest companies do not agree. Over the past few weeks, an extraordinary cry of alarm has risen from chief executives who warn that the French economy has gone dangerously off track. In an interview to be published on Nov. 15 in the magazine l’Express, Chief Executive Officer Henri de Castries of financial-services group Axa (CS:FP) warns that France is rapidly losing ground, not only against Germany but against nearly all its European neighbors. “There’s a strong risk that in 2013 and 2014, we will fall behind economies such as Spain, Italy, and Britain,” de Castries says.

On Nov. 5, veteran corporate chieftain Louis Gallois released a government-commissioned report calling for “shock treatment” to restore French competitiveness. And on Oct. 28, a group of 98 CEOs published an open letter to Hollande that said public-sector spending, which at 56 percent of gross domestic product is the highest in Europe, “is no longer supportable.” The letter was signed by the CEOs of virtually every major French company. (The few exceptions included utility Electricité de France, which is government controlled.)

The outcry is unusual for France Inc., which has tended to lobby behind the scenes and avoid public criticism of the government. That’s perhaps not surprising, since many CEOs attended the same schools as the country’s top politicians and often worked in government before going into business. De Castries was a classmate of Hollande’s at the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration; Serge Weinberg, chairman of pharmaceutical giant Sanofi (SAN:FP) and a signatory of the Oct. 28 letter, used to work for Socialist Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

The problems they’re complaining about aren’t new. Heavy taxes and social charges required to support high government spending have eroded corporate profitability. In the l’Express interview, de Castries says that on average, the government charges incurred by his company for each employee are more than double the employee’s take-home pay. French labor costs are the second-highest in Europe, after Belgium, as companies are burdened with rigid and devilishly complicated work rules. No surprise, then, that operating margins at French companies have shrunk almost 40 percent over the past decade, while those of companies in Germany—where painful labor-market reforms were carried out—have risen about 40 percent.

With Europe mired in economic crisis, the French citizenry is now reaping the bitter results. Companies are shedding workers, pushing unemployment to a 13-year high of more than 10 percent, almost twice Germany’s rate. After three quarters of flat growth, the economy looks to be tipping into recession.

At the same time, the crisis has pushed other European governments—Italy’s, for example—to carry out long-overdue reforms. As Gallois put it in his report, France has become “unhooked” from the broader economic realities. Gallois listed 22 recommendations, including a €30 billion ($38 billion) reduction in payroll taxes, loosening of labor laws, and the lifting of a ban on shale-gas exploration.

Hollande’s government didn’t respond to most of the recommendations but said it would enact temporary tax credits for business totaling €20 billion over three years. Corporate bosses are not impressed. A temporary credit will not “structurally diminish the cost of labor” or reduce administrative burdens on business, Michel Landel, CEO of food-service group Sodexo (SW:FP), said in a Nov. 10 radio interview.

Businesses also fret that the process of applying for tax credits will add to already burdensome paperwork. “The first thing they do is to complicate the mechanism for lowering the social charges,” de Castries laments in the l’Express interview.

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