Laurence Parisot: the woman who said non to Sarkozy

Parisot, the boss of the French CBI, is determined to set a business-friendly agenda in France.

by Charles Bremner
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Back in the old days, the chief of Medef, the French equivalent of our CBI, was a tough guy. He was le patron des patrons – the boss of the bosses – and he usually hailed from heavy industry. The last incumbent, Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, was the very model of the mighty alpha male – an entrepreneur and heir to the Wendel industrial empire, and an officer of the Legion d'honneur and the Ordre national du Merite. Then came Laurence Parisot.

Petite with gamine looks and a soft voice, la patronne des patrons still looks miscast as she greets visitors to her airy office at Medef's HQ on the Left Bank. The Eiffel Tower thrusts skyward outside her window but the feminine touch is everywhere else, from the flower arrangements to the painting by graffiti artist Quik. It bears the slogan 'Love will tear us apart'.

Parisot, who turns 51 in August, is dressed simply in trousers. The eye is drawn to her diamond-encrusted Chaumet wristwatch. The pixie look - complete with dazzling blue eyes – misled some rivals back in 2005 when the owner and chief executive of the venerable Ifop polling firm set her sights on the Medef presidency. Five years later and certain of re-election in July, Parisot no longer needs to prove there is a steel core beneath the seemingly fragile exterior. On the contrary, critics fault her management style as authoritarian. The other day, Le Figaro, the most conservative daily and a strong supporter, compared her drive and determination to that of Margaret Thatcher.

Parisot, a jazz pianist and art collector in her spare time, says that she has greatly improved the image of Medef. It used to figure as the devil in the them-against-us, anti-business mentality that prevails in much of France. 'I have made Medef more acceptable and more appreciated, though perhaps not likeable yet,' she says. Things have changed, she notes, since protesters marched in 2003 with caricatures that depicted her predecessor as 'the most hated man in France'. For all that she has done to give Medef a friendlier face, Parisot remains a potential target of extremists. She has received death threats and has to travel with police bodyguards, paid for by Medef.

Parisot, who has never married or had children, was thrilled by a poll in Journal du Dimanche that ranked her among the most popular women in France, and she can't resist a girlish laugh as she quotes the ranking. 'After actresses Marion Cotillard and Audrey Tautou, it listed the first public, political women. There were two: finance minister Christine Lagarde and myself – and before Segolene Royal and Martine Aubry. The representative of the French bosses in the favourites list! That's a major change.' Royal and Aubry are respectively the Socialist candidate in the 2007 presidential race and the party's present leader.

After three decades of progress on women's equality, France is sinking back, says Parisot. 'It's a form of racism.' She gives an example: 'At the start of my term at Medef, I regularly met a minister with a male assistant and the minister always turned to him to ask the serious questions, not me.'

Parisot thinks that misogyny explains some of the hostility that emerged in recent months, especially from Alain Minc, a business strategist, writer and guru who is a big influence on President Sarkozy. Minc accused her of failing to exert leadership and seize the high ground in the financial turmoil of 2008. She has no time for Minc. 'I think we were magnificent at the moment of the crisis,' Parisot retorts in the precise, deliberate tones that have made her instantly recognisable on the radio and TV. 'Our first reflex was to help business on the practical side. It wasn't the moment to erect grand theories. The force of Medef is being able to gather everyone - industrialists, banks, retailers – around the same table.' She also cites her 'daring' action in persuading the bosses of the CAC Quarante – the corporations in the benchmark index of the Paris stock exchange – to adopt a voluntary code on remuneration: 'No golden parachute when the business fails. Public opinion must be taken into account when remuneration is being set. Self-regulation is better than regulation.'

Minc said that Parisot, originally a big fan of France's most pro-business president for decades, lost Sarkozy's trust by opposing him over policies such as his flagship carbon tax and by resisting his push to regulate 'fat cat' incomes. Her campaign against the carbon tax was successful. Sarkozy dropped it last winter in one of the biggest reversals of his presidency. Parisot is also proud of the way she stood up to Sarkozy when he came up with something he called 'the three thirds rule' in the heat of the financial crisis early last year. This would have required companies to plough a third of their profits back into the business, give a third to shareholders and a third to the workforce. She put her foot down in a hard meeting with Super Sarko. 'I came out and the press was there. I still hear my "non" echoing in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace.' Sarkozy was fuming, but he has never mentioned his scheme again.

Parisot's job, she says, is neither to oppose nor to cheerlead for the president whom she first knew when they were students at Sciences Po, the political sciences school of Paris. She is under pressure from some of her membership to be more critical of the president's switch to a sort of Gaullist, social dirigisme, she says. 'It's very important to have the right distance with the government. If you're too close, you can't say a certain number of things. If you are too far away, they don't listen to you. You have to have the right balance, the golden mean.' Parisot's time with young Sarko at Sciences Po is obviously a help (the future president dropped out after failing an English exam). She remembers student Sarkozy as being passionate about politics. 'He used to go up to the professor after a class to discuss the technicalities of elections.'

La crise of the past two years may have turned Sarkozy into a born-again champion of intervention, but the president has done a lot of good for the business world, much of it under the influence of Medef, she notes. One item was the scrapping last year of the taxe professionelle, a levy on capital investment to finance local government that the business world always depicted as a French folly. 'If the president undertook this reform, it was thanks to the force of our lobbying and conviction,' Parisot says. Another Medef-inspired move was a tax credit to promote research. 'We have the best-performing tool for innovation and research in the OECD,' she says. 'When Microsoft decided to set up a European research centre, it picked Paris, thanks to the research tax credit.' But while Microsoft and some other high-tech groups are making the most of French incentives, high taxes and tight labour laws still deter many foreign investors.

Parisot also claims a big role in Sarkozy's attempt this summer to raise the legal retirement age from 60 to about 63. 'When Sarkozy was elected in 2007, we suggested he tackle pensions. I was alone in telling him that publicly. At first he said "no", and then we became so persuasive, he decided in 2009 to take it on.' The retirement reform will amount to one of the most profound changes in French life for decades. In May, public sector workers went on strike and tens of thousands were in the streets on a day of protest against the threat to their cherished social rights. Sarkozy has staked his final two years in the presidency on pushing through the change.

Parisot sees pension reform as important for showing the world that France is capable of adapting and to raise morale at home. 'When I entered the workforce, I didn't worry about being poor later on. Today, all young French people know that there is a risk and it weighs on morale.' Unemployment among 18 to 25 year-olds is 25%, with the figure reaching 70% in some of the poor immigrant suburbs. Parisot's comparison with her own youth is perhaps a little stretched since she was destined to take over Optimum, a family furniture manufacturing business based in Agen. She inherited the firm in 2002 on the death of her father and still runs it. Family money helped her buy 75% of the capital of Ifop, the venerable polling firm where she became chief executive in 1990 aged 30. She manages to spend half a day a week at Ifop, where she remains vice-president. The Medef job comes with no salary at all.

Both the unions and the opposition Socialist party have pledged to fight to the death to retain retirement at 60, but their opposition involves a little artifice, she says. 'The unions know full well that change is inevitable. They accept the idea that things have to move.'

France's continuing devotion to short working hours and early retirement is of course a legacy of the old anti-capitalist mentality. Three years into the recession, it often seems that the pendulum has swung hard back. Le liberalisme, French for the free-market doctrines of business, has become a dirty word again and the beneficent state is back in favour. But Parisot thinks the public chatter masks an underlying shift. Her goal when she took the Medef job was to faire aimer l'entreprise – make people like business - and she thinks she has achieved it despite the upheaval since 2008. There is a big difference, she says, between the political, intellectual and media world and the reality among ordinary people.

'The unions, for example, understand they have to adapt. Our problem in France is that we do things but we must not talk about them,' she says. France's history, with its revolutions and the bloody 1870 Commune revolt in Paris, created symbols that you are not allowed to touch, she says. She believes a new pro-business spirit is afoot. People, for example, have been rushing to sign up as 'auto-entrepreneurs', a new simple statute that Sarkozy created to encourage mini-businesses. She also points to the success of the rupture conventionnelle, a no-fault procedure for terminating employment that cuts through the notoriously restrictive labour code.

'We are adapting because we want to remain a strong country,'

says Parisot. 'We were such a privileged country for so long that we had a tendency to think that we only had to stay at home in comfort and all would be well. It was a shock to discover that to stay prosperous, we had to cross frontiers and master the English language.'

Parisot is certainly out of tune with the Paris establishment in her advocacy of le liberalisme and her opposition to state interference in the private sector of the kind that post-crisis Sarkozy now champions. 'The need for states to intervene quickly to save the financial system and come to the aid of sectors like the motor industry brought back the idea that the state can do a lot and that we should put more interventionism in the economy. I think that is an illusion. The state cannot do everything and must not be too engaged.'

Nevertheless, she differs from her Anglo-Saxon colleagues in promoting the idea of close co-ordination between the state and the business world. 'We are not seeking subsidies for such and such a sector. But there has to be fair play and conditions have to be created for the best to win. It would be good to start by thinking about a European strategy,' she says.

Parisot and Medef believe that despite the turmoil of recent months, the European Union and the euro remain the only path to prosperity. Medef, like Sarkozy and the socialist opposition, thinks the euro badly needs to be stabilised through 'real economic governance in Europe'. That means harmonising taxes and national budgets in the eurozone, she says.

Germany still does not share the French enthusiasm for getting the politicians together to guide the single currency. Parisot is concerned by friction between Paris and Berlin over this. 'The Franco-German relationship is essential,' she says. 'What is happening at the moment worries us and we want to show our attachment to the Union. We have more chance of winning against Asia if we are united. We should have a stronger hard core in Europe: London, Paris, Berlin. This is the condition under which Europe can remain a beacon.'

She admires Britain and its 'realism and adaptability'. 'The situation is rough in England because the financial system was a key sector in its economy. The City took a terrible hit. What this inspires in me is that you should not put all your eggs in one basket. That's one of the lessons from the crisis. The more diversified you are, the better it is.' But France is in no position to give lessons to the UK, she adds. 'They say that France is emerging in better shape but if we do not make structural reforms, we will not come out better in the medium term.'

Parisot is guaranteed a second term after seeing off attempts by a couple of dissidents to unseat her. 'Many wanted my place. They didn't succeed,' she says. The Medef supervisory board voted its unanimous support for her re-election. Parisot is given credit for winning the confidence of the unions, the other member of the 'social partnership' that governs industrial relations on the continent. She is also admired for her clean-up in 2007 of the Augean stables at the UIMM, the powerful federation of the metallurgy industries. The leadership was replaced after investigators uncovered a secret slush fund of several hundred million euros. The case has yet to reach the courts.

Parisot has, however, run into trouble over what critics see as a high-handed manner which has led to a rapid turnover of senior staff. And earlier this year there were questions in the media about her relationship with Rosine Lapresle, 55, a former philosophy teacher and now a graphologist and business consultant who is her closest adviser and a friend.

On her second term, she is determined to attack the burden of tax and regulation that weighs so heavily on France's ability to compete. France is severely handicapped by regulatory brakes, high employment charges and insufficient investment in R&D, she says. Her priority is the PMEs, the small and medium-sized firms which make up the majority of Medef's membership, some of which have felt neglected under her leadership. 'My slogan is "think competitiveness". We have to make progress on lowering payroll tax. Everywhere, we have to simplify and recreate legal certainty. There are new regulations all the time. Laws on the environment are very heavy and complex. Business cannot withstand any more taxes.'

She is especially attached to an imminent Medef-backed reform: a new law requiring that women make up 40% of the boards of big French companies. Women occupy just over 10% of board seats in the 650 publicly quoted companies to which the quota will gradually apply from late this year (Britain's level, about 12%, is not much better). The mixite law makes France the first big economy to enforce a female presence in the boardroom after Scandinavia paved the way. Parisot calls the new regime a revolution that will not just benefit women, but also the firms they help run. 'Women have a creative side that is very different from that of men. It's sometimes difficult for a man to realise that an idea is a real creative idea and not idiotic because it's coming from a woman.' She also notes that women are not embarrassed to show 'humanity and sensitivity' while men are often reluctant to do so. 'Since men do not express this side, it is not taken into account in business decisions. That's going to change.' The writing is on the wall for those old-style machos from heavy industry.

Unemployment 10%   8.3%
Debt/GDP 80%   62%
Budget deficit/GDP 8%   11.5%
GDP growth
1.5%   1.3%
IMF rank GDP 5th   6th
Number of public holidays (2008) 13   8


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