Political Braying Doesn’t Sound Better In French

These days it comes as no surprise when politicians and labor leaders crowd the microphones to denounce a corporation that intends to move high-paying jobs overseas.

But in this case, the critics did not say a word about protecting American workers or about creating American jobs. It would have been odd if they had, because the audience was not a very pro-American crowd. The “sea” the jobs are moving over is the Atlantic Ocean, and their destination is Cambridge, Mass.

The protests were directed at the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, one of the world’s biggest drugmakers. In the midst of a less-than-stellar but still profitable year, the company’s Canadian-German CEO, Christopher Viehbacher, announced plans to shift many research and development functions from France to Massachusetts, home of Sanofi’s newest acquisition, Genzyme. The move may end up costing around 2,500 French jobs, according to Jean-Francois Chavance, a representative of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor.

Viehbacher said that he hoped the move would help incorporate Genzyme’s culture of innovation into Sanofi’s research and development department. During an earnings call in July Viehbacher told reporters, “Out of our research in France, we haven’t really developed a new molecule in 20 years.” Genzyme, which Sanofi acquired in a $20 billion hostile takeover, is a world leader in producing treatments for rare genetic diseases.

French Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg was not pleased. In a speech in the National Assembly, the minister said he had told Viehbacher that France “already had enough trouble limiting hemorrhages at companies that are losing money,” without accepting “that ultra-performing companies start destroying jobs.”

Of course, it is not the responsibility of successful companies to balance job losses at less successful firms. In fact, a big part of what makes a company successful is the ability and willingness to focus jobs where the work can be done the most effectively and at the lowest cost. To his credit, Viehbacher responded that Sanofi would “make no apologies for being a profitable company.”

After Viehbacher’s refusal to reconsider his business strategy solely to please politicians, Montebourg and other French leaders may feel that all they can do is grumble. Grumbling is probably all that they will do, despite the worrisome implication in a Wall Street Journal article that the French government could retaliate against Sanofi using the leverage of the national health-care insurance program.

There is another option that French government officials are overlooking: improve their country’s business climate so successful businesses have more incentive to stay put.

Doing so would, first and foremost, mean giving up the unofficial policy of bashing companies for decisions that are good for business but bad for politicians. Second, it would mean relaxing regulations, in order to give businesses space to encourage the sort of innovation that Sanofi has been unable to foster in France, but that Genzyme was able to produce in the United States.

France currently ranks 29th, among 183 economies, for overall “ease of doing business,” according to The World Bank’s Doing Business Project. The U.S. remains ranked at number four despite its own set of issues, some of which I have written about before, including those that led the insurance giant Aon to move its headquarters to the seventh-ranked United Kingdom. Because labor costs are high in Western Europe, as well as in the United States, an attractive regulatory environment and an innovative culture are particularly important as means of drawing the sort of higher-paid jobs Sanofi is shifting to the U.S.

Rather than working to attract businesses, however, France is likely to continue its strategy of trying to coerce and scare the ones already based there into staying. This is the same rhetoric we have heard here in the States. Unlike many words, however, these don’t sound any better in French.

About Larry M. Elkin 525 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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