What future for Business France?

Business France is in the eye of the storm. Business France was set up in January 2015 thanks to the merger of Ubifrance, which centralized public support for exports, and the French International Investment Agency (AFII), which is responsible for attractiveness, and Business France is the subject of a preliminary investigation, which was opened in March 2017 by the Paris Prosecution Service.

After the first revelations of chained duck, there is a suspicion of the offense of favoritism, complicity and concealment. Specifically, the public agency is suspected of having entrusted the Havas agency without a tender the holding of an evening to celebrate French startups in Las Vegas in January 2016 during the Consumer Electronic Show (CES), the world’s big meeting. high-tech, and where Emmanuel Macron was the guest of honor.

Wednesday, the daily Release revealed information that would tend to show that the former director general of the agency, now at the helm of the Ministry of Labor, is suspected of having concealed certain errors in an attempt to clear Emmanuel Macron and his cabinet, which would have pushed Business France to organize this evening as a matter of urgency.

A bad atmosphere

On June 20, searches were conducted by the police in itCentral Office for Combating Corruption and Economic and Fiscal Offenses (OCLCIFF) at the headquarters of the Havas Group and at the premises of Business France as part of this preliminary investigation. According to our information, this visit left tangible traces in Business France. “A search is not a simple courtesy visit … It is something of a traumatic experience“, says a source with knowledge of the case.

While they wait for justice to shed light on each other’s responsibilities in this case, the business force in Business France may have some time to recover from their feelings. Unfortunately.

The Minister for Economic Affairs, Bruno Le Maire, is determined to give a budget twist to enable France to respect its Community commitments to reduce the government deficit, and has warned: difficult decisions must be made. It is clear that budget cuts can be expected and Business France may very well be suffering the consequences.

The subject is already on the table of the Ministers for Economic Affairs and Foreign Affairs, who share supervision with the Agency. According to our information, inter-ministerial meetings are underway on the status of the new board without its members being able to attend, which conditions its future.

Rumors are widespread

What decisions could be made at the conclusion of these meetings, attended by only a handful of ministerial advisers? Several rumors circulate and end up destabilizing troops already heavily tested by the successive reforms that have transformed Ubifrance and AFII until the last one, which ratified their merger in 2015.

In order to rationalize public spending, the two ministers’ cabinets envisage a clear division of the agency. The export part (formerly Ubifrance) could be integrated into Bpifrance, the public investment bank, which would thus complete its area of ​​expertise. Remember that Business France counts Bbifrance among its customers and already invoices it for international support services.

Moreover, the two parties are already working together. Since May 2013, Bpifrance, Ubifrance – then Business France -, Coface and the regions of France have been collaborating on Bpifrance exports, a structure that brings together under the same brand the public bodies responsible for supporting export companies. During the presidential campaign, candidate Macron had repeatedly stated his intention to simplify Bpifrance and Business France to improve their actions.

Jigsaw style

The attraction part could be placed under the authority of the Prime Minister, e.g. via a High Commissioner responsible for attractiveness. Unless Bercy or Quai d’Orsay want to take up this matter. As for the communication and promotion part, it will be aimed at the Government Information Service (GIS), which is responsible for highlighting our country’s assets, in France and abroad.

With this strategy, the government was able to realize some savings. The agency, which has around 1,500 employees in its workforce, has an annual budget of around € 100 million. By splitting Business France up this way, one might think the government would make a few job cuts. It is especially in the export part, which employs around 1,300 people, that the risk of social harm is great.

A chronic trade deficit

Admittedly, some promising results of the export section of Business France have been recorded. The number of supported companies and international volunteers in companies (VIE) sent abroad has risen sharply. But we do not succeed in making us forget the chronic nature of the trade deficit and its stabilization, even the reduction in the number of exporting companies. France has almost 120,000, twice less than Italy and three times less than Germany. Of course, Business France is not entirely responsible for this situation, but it is a complete angle of attack for its opponents, who accuse the agency of overshadowing them and competing with them.

Medef, trade and industry have constantly damaged the image of Ubifrance and Business France, as if they were solely responsible for the faults of French foreign trade. They had better sweep outside their doors. Who better than Medef and the CCIs can discover potential export champions? We are still awaiting their results in this area.“, Explains a connoisseur of the mysteries of the three-colored foreign trade apparatus.

This disintegration would have another advantage for the executive, of an economic nature. By distributing its troops in this way (the staff of the former AFII is mainly outside France, in its 70 offices abroad), Business France was able to leave its premises on Boulevard Saint-Jacques in the 14th arrondissement, premises acquired in 2006 thanks to be the resale of Roland Bonaparte’s former private mansion, the historic headquarters of the French Center for Foreign Trade (CFCE). By putting them back on the market, the state that owns them could lower a nice capital gain.

If this scenario were to come true, gossipers could let off steam by condemning the state’s total lack of strategic vision in the economic field. Considered the marriage between the carp and the rabbit in Ubifrance and AFII itself, the merger of these two agencies into a single entity has never been unanimous, as their staff have struggled to work together and bring together their forces, in France and abroad.

Another scenario is possible

Another hypothesis is on the table. However, in the event that Business France retains its identity and all its missions, it would be surprising if it passed through the drops. Thrift is actually threatening. To implement these structural reforms, a new government is possible with a non-political executive president who will have the rank of ambassador, assisted by a general manager.

Until 2015, a chairman from the political class sat on the board. Jean-Paul Bacquet, the PS deputy from Puy-de-Dôme was the last to date before Muriel Pénicaud combined the function of general manager and ambassador.

For the post of CEO, one name circulates: Ross McInnes. This ex-banker (Kleinwort Benson, then Continental Bank, now Bank of America), ex-industrialist (Safran) has been the financial ambassador for Île-de-France since the end of 2016. Why him? First of all, he is a member of civil society, which is the condition sine qua non imposed by the government to hold this position.

A duo at the helm of Business France

Another advantage is that he knows the sector well. In February 2015, he was appointed Special Representative for Relations with Australia by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to strengthen bilateral trade between the two countries and promote France’s attractiveness to Australian investors. He performed his mission excellently. It has actually participated in the success of DCNS, which in April 2016 won the contract of the century: Delivery to Canberra of twelve submarines for an amount of 35 billion euros over fifty years.

Who could help him? At Business France, and especially among the former Ubifrance, we dream of the return of Christophe Lecourtier, the former CEO of Ubifrance from 2008 to 2014, currently France’s Ambassador to … Australia, who according to our information would welcome to his repatriation to the boulevard Saint-Jacques, where he left fond memories. During his tenure, he had succeeded in reforming Ubifrance for the first time while limiting staff reductions.