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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.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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