Article paru dans The Telegraph, 1er juin 2013.

France is in a worse state than Britain was at the time of its 1976 bail-out by the International Monetary Fund, one of the nation’s best-known businessmen has declared.

Henri de Castries, chairman and chief executive of Axa, the world’s largest insurer by premium income, said in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph that the government of the French president, François Hollande, must learn the lessons of Britain’s experience.

“The UK was not in great shape in the early 1970s,” he said. “Mr Hollande has to decide if he wants to be Harold Wilson or Tony Blair.

“So far he has been ambiguous. I hope he is going to go for Blair. I am not asking him to become Margaret Thatcher.

“It could get worse but I am convinced that at one stage or another, reason will prevail.”

The action of Mr Wilson’s successor as prime minister, James Callaghan, in asking the IMF for a £2.3bn loan in 1976 is generally regarded as one of Britain’s lowest economic points of the post-war era. When asked if France’s heavily-indebted economy is in an even worse condition, Mr de Castries replied: “Yes, because the world has changed.

“Things are changing way faster than they were in the 1970s or 1980s with technology, capital and talent available everywhere in the world, which was not the case then. This is making the lack of action, vision and priorities a much more difficult thing and a much bigger sin than before.”

Last week, the European Commission told France to cut labour costs, reform its pensions system and open up its protected markets in exchange for a two-year window to bring its budget deficit under 3pc of its gross domestic product (GDP).

“France, as the European Commission rightly said, is in dire need of doing some serious structural reforms to labour laws, education and public spending,” he said.

Pointing out that French public spending is 56pc of GDP – 10 percentage points higher than the average of the other eurozone countries, he said the difference represents €200bn (£171bn) a year in France’s €2 trillion economy.

“This €200bn is money taken out each year from the people who know how to make money, create jobs and foster growth to subsidise benefits, and public projects that do not necessarily have any significant rate of return,” he said. “So it is no surprise that the competitiveness is not optimal. The question in France is not so much about reducing the deficit; it’s about reducing the spending.”

He said Axa’s French business, which accounts for 20pc of group revenues, is growing and highly profitable because the company has never been afraid to adapt to changing conditions.

He is concerned that France’s problems are causing an exodus of young talent, a significant fall in foreign investment in France and reduced inward investment by French companies, too.

“As we say in French, ‘you don’t catch flies with vinegar’. So, if the government is unfriendly and raising taxes, making employment laws more rigid, it should not be a surprise to see business confidence declining and investment going down.

“The French labour code has 3,650 pages and 200 pages are added every year.

“The Swiss labour code has 70 pages and I do not think Switzerland is a less efficient economy or labour market.”

He said growth and jobs would only “come from business investment” and called on the French government to make “life easier” for business.

Axa, which employs 160,000 people worldwide, including 18,000 in France and 12,000 in the UK, has restructured its operations since 2007 to focus more on growth in emerging markets.

It has made €8bn of disposals in traditional markets and has spent €6bn buying businesses in other markets, raising the amount of group revenues attributable to emerging markets from 5pc in 2007 to 15pc today.

credit photo : flickr_frans16611