French CEOs Break With Tradition To Back Macron, Reject Le Pen

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French executives are ditching their traditional reluctance to speak publicly about politics, openly supporting independent Emmanuel Macron in the May 7 presidential runoff against Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front.

In statements published in business newspaper Les Echos, the CEOs of 13 companies — including five members of the CAC 40 stock index — said Le Pen’s policies would severely harm the country. Her plan to reintroduce a national currency to replace the euro “would be a catastrophe for French companies and inhabitants,” wrote Antoine Frérot, CEO of utility group Veolia Environnement SA. “The National Front’s program would pose a risk to the political stability of our country,” he added.

Although Macron had picked up endorsements from high-tech entrepreneurs such as Marc Simoncini of online-dating site Meetic and Jacques-Antoine Grandjon of e-commerce site Vente-Privee.com, most French CEOs until now had refrained from speaking publicly about the election. That changed after Le Pen advanced to the runoff against Macron as one of two survivors of the first-round election last month.

Jean-Dominique Senard, CEO of tiremaker Michelin, warned in Les Echos that a French exit from the euro would trigger inflation and produce “a breakdown in competitiveness,” while Thierry Breton of digital-services provider Atos said Le Pen’s protectionist policies would halt foreign investment and cause skilled professionals and researchers to flee the country.

Separately, CEO Tom Enders of aerospace giant Airbus sent a letter to Macron promising his “full support in the second round of the election, and in the legislative elections that follow.” Excerpts were published by the business news site La Tribune on April 30. An Airbus spokesman confirmed the contents of the letter, in which Enders, who is German, wrote that Macron’s pro-European Union policies were “fundamental for a company like ours.”

“As the leader of a major industrial group and as a citizen,” CEO Jean-Pierre Clamadieu of chemical manufacturer Solvay wrote in Les Echos, “I cannot remain silent.”

For most corporate leaders, “the prospect of a National Front presidency is very alarming,” said Douglas Webber, a political scientist at the Insead business school near Paris. Besides worrying about a possible exit from the euro, CEOs of “internationally active” companies fret that Le Pen would harm them by enacting trade barriers and retaining cumbersome labor regulations that weigh on French competitiveness, Webber said.

CEO support can be a double-edged sword at a time of rising populist sentiment. Business leaders in the U.K., for example, mostly supported remaining in the European Union when the country last year voted to leave the bloc. The embrace from corporate executives isn’t likely to harm Macron, Webber said, because “the huge majority of French citizens have already made up their minds” about how they’ll vote. Polls show about 60 percent of voters favor Macron.

Other CEOs who spoke against Le Pen in Les Echos, which is owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH, included Martin Bouygues of construction and communications company Bouygues SA; Michel-Edouard Leclerc of retailer E. Leclerc; Olivier Mathiot of PriceMinister, a French e-commerce site acquired in 2011 by Rakuten Inc. of Japan, and Jean-Baptiste Rudelle of Criteo SA, a Paris-based Internet advertising group that’s listed on Nasdaq.

“If France places a tax on foreign workers as Marine Le Pen has promised, and closes its borders, that would certainly force us to rethink our decision to remain in France,” Rudelle wrote. “That’s the paradox of the National Front’s program. Supposedly it would prevent jobs from leaving the country, when in fact exactly the opposite would happen.”

(c) 2017, Bloomberg · Carol Matlack

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