Photographer: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

The $150 Billion French Expat Who Quit to Campaign for Macron

  • Former No. 2 at Quebec’s Caisse focusing on overseas voters
  • EU supporter Lescure says Brexit, Trump were wake-up calls

In the space of a week, Roland Lescure has gone from overseeing more than C$200 billion ($151 billion) in bonds and equities at Canada’s second-largest pension fund manager to handing out political leaflets on the streets of Montreal. He swears he has no job lined up and couldn’t be more thrilled about the move.

Lescure, a 50-year-old Frenchman, quit as chief investment officer of the Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec on April 5 to enter French politics. He announced the next day he was joining the campaign of independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, who’s emerged as the front-runner in recent weeks, for the presidential and parliamentary elections.

In one of the tightest races in recent memory, candidates such as Macron are making every effort to woo 1.3 million French expatriate voters, who tend to vote for fiscally conservative candidates. If history is any guide, they’ll need lots of wooing: only 39 percent of expatriates cast a ballot in the first round of the 2012 elections, compared with 79 percent for French voters overall.

“If I can convince French expats to go out and vote, I will have done something,” Lescure said Tuesday in an interview at Bloomberg’s Montreal office. “Anything can happen in this election. It’s not going to be a walk in the park.”

For an overview of the French election, click here.

While overseas voters picked then-incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 -- in contrast to their France-based compatriots who elected the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande -- a recent poll suggests Macron is attracting expats this time around. He would receive 36 percent of their votes, ahead of Republicans candidate Francois Fillon’s 31 percent, according to a BVA poll for Le Petit Journal done last month.

In the French-speaking province of Quebec, where more than 67,000 French nationals are registered to vote, Lescure is going granular, riding a media buzz that the news of his resignation has given the campaign. He attended a meeting of 45 people in a cafe in Quebec City a few days ago, and the team is organizing a rally in Montreal next week, days before the first-round vote that takes place April 22 in North America -- a day earlier than France. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters compete in a runoff two weeks later.

Lescure first met Macron during a 2012 meeting with investors at the French presidential palace where he then worked as an aide to Hollande, and says he was impressed by his quick grasp of the European debt crisis. He kept tabs on him as Macron went on to become economy minister and created his political movement, before quitting the government.

Monetary Union

Both men share an attachment to the European Union, which for Lescure is rooted in his experience as a young economist in the 1990s -- first as an intern at the European Commission in Brussels and later at France’s Finance Ministry, when he helped negotiate rules for the future monetary union. He links his desire to get involved to the two biggest political surprises of 2016: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.

“Brexit was a real thunderbolt. I didn’t want to look back at 60 and realize I had a chance to make a contribution and did nothing,” he said.

The election of National Front leader Marine Le Pen or far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, vocal critics of the EU, would mark the end of a partnership between Germany and France that’s helped overcome the region’s economic crises of the past 25 years, he said.

Europe might not explode on the day after the election, “but it would shake up markets,” likely widening bond spreads and jeopardizing corporate investment plans, according to Lescure. Bracing for a referendum on EU membership or clashes with Germany would also leave the region more vulnerable in case of outside shocks or another debt crisis, he said.

Outside Perspective

While he acknowledges fiscal concerns have played a key part in expats’ past votes, Lescure says he feels this election goes beyond and is about defining France and Europe for the next 20 years, something people with an outside perspective would be keen to weigh in on.

Lescure has lived in Montreal since 2009, when he was brought on board by Chief Executive Officer Michael Sabia in part to help the Caisse strengthen its risk-management practices following a record loss. At the C$271 billion Caisse, Lescure was responsible for investments in public and private markets, which represent more than three-quarters of assets under management.

Lescure -- who earned C$2.2 million in 2015, the most recent year for which compensation figures are available -- acknowledges his career earnings give him the means to make the jump. He said he has no guarantee that his involvement will lead to a job, should Macron become president, or a candidacy in the June French legislative elections.

“I have no career plan,” he said. “I don’t have a job. Do I hope this will result into something? Yes, but I have no idea what this will be. For me this is an obstacle race, and it’s best to take them one at a time.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.