ECONOMY

Macron Leans on Business Confidence to Bolster White-Collar Vote

Emmanuel Macron has kept a firm hand on corporate France in five years as president, prioritizing politics over private business by blocking the sale of the country’s largest supermarket chain and forcing its biggest utility to bear the brunt of surging power prices

Rather than recoil at his dirigiste approach, many company executives are happy to look past it, celebrating instead Macron’s efforts to reduce bureaucracy and taxes and the country’s standout economic rebound from the pandemic. That’s given him a big advantage in winning votes from the business world as he seeks re-election.

“Macron has done a lot for the economy and this led to increased investor confidence in the country,” Ariane Hayate, a fund manager at Edmond de Rothschild Asset Management, said in an interview. “It was unexpected, but France has become the engine of Europe post pandemic.”

In polling before Sunday’s first-round vote, Macron gets 29% support among white-collar workers, and 34% from the wealthiest voters, according to a rolling survey by Ifop-Fiducial, the highest among the 12 candidates. His closest overall rival, Marine Le Pen of the nationalist, anti-immigration National Rally party, gets 9% and 8%, respectively.

For all his support from business, though, the race has become much closer in its final days: While polls show Macron winning the first round and then beating any other candidate in the April 24 runoff, he’s now leading Le Pen by only 53% to 47% in surveys of second-round voting intentions, down from 60% to 40% in mid-March

The problem for Macron is that his economic record and white-collar support still leave him vulnerable to Le Pen’s challenge. She’s beating him in the polls among working-class voters, and she’s been hammering the theme of restoring purchasing power that’s been eroded by rising prices. That’s helped her to steadily close the gap in recent surveys.  

“Le Pen appears to be sharper and more composed than during the last elections, including on economic issues,” said John Plassard, a director at Mirabaud & Cie. “Her main slogan is ‘Give the French back their money.’ The measures she proposes are popular and would make sense.”

Opponents on the left also have used Macron’s pro-business, lower-tax policies to tar him as “the president of the rich.”

Macron — a 44-year-old former investment banker at Rothschild & Co. — cut taxes for the wealthy, removing one of the biggest deterrents for high earners thinking about working in France. As a result, Paris is emerging as a top destination for investment banks and hedge funds hunting for a European Union base after Brexit. That’s a turnabout from his predecessor, Francois Hollande, who called finance his adversary.

While he’s been pro-business, Macron hasn’t been a free marketeer. The state, as it’s done under most French presidents, hasn’t hesitated on his watch to step in to shape the corporate agenda. 

France, for example, blocked Canadian convenience-store operator Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. from acquiring grocer Carrefour SA, and Macron has floated the idea of nationalizing parts of struggling utility Electricite de France SA. Carmaker Renault SA’s talks to merge with Italian-American rival Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV foundered when the state set conditions on a deal, though Macron did wave through the combination of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot SA, France’s other big auto company.

But many executives say Le Pen would be more damaging to business interests. In her drive for “economic patriotism” she would look to renegotiate free-trade agreements, give French people preference for jobs and limit immigration. 

“A Le Pen victory would be totally unexpected,” said Matteo Brancolini, a fund manager at BPER Banca in Milan. “It would be bad for markets. It would be bad for business. It would be terrible for the image of France.”

In addition to easing French bureaucracy and lowering taxes, Macron’s effort to blunt the coronavirus pandemic also has won him praise from executives. Besides massive financial support for businesses, France put in place some of the most stringent vaccine requirements in Europe, demanding a pass to take part in most social activities such as going to restaurants and museums. 

“He fully realized that science was the only way to get out of the Covid crisis,” said Jean-Paul Clozel, the French-born chief executive officer of Swiss drug developer Idorsia Ltd. “He did everything he could do, with the means he had and the lack of biotech in France. He tried to get everyone vaccinated. He was very clear on this and it wasn’t very popular.”

In the runup to the election, Macron has been touting investments in France by foreign companies as evidence that his efforts are paying off. In January, Eastman Chemical Co., BASF SE and Canada’s Loop Industries Inc. were among companies that announced 4 billion euros ($4.4 billion) of investments in the country. Unemployment ended last year at 7.4%, the lowest level since 2008.

“I dearly hope Macron gets re-elected,” said Michele Garufi, CEO of French biotech Nicox SA. “He’s trying to change the country. There’s more he must do, but he’s on the right track.”

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