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Vive la Resistance! French CEOs Rally Against Populism

But could the heads of companies including Airbus, Michelin and Veolia inadvertently be fanning the flames?
French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen at a rally.

Dozens of high-profile CEOs may have urged British voters to remain in the European Union. Evidently, that didn’t help very much.

The rising populist sentiment that also helped sweep Donald Trump into the White House is characterized by a deep public mistrust of authority figures, including many in the business sector.

Perhaps fearing they too might undermine their own causes, French captains of industry have been conspicuously silent amid the rise of far-right politician Marine Le Pen. At least until now.


Le Pen on Sunday will compete in a presidential run-off with independent and pro-globalization candidate Emmanuel Macron, after the pair emerged as the leading candidates following first-stage elections last month.

The vote is widely seen as a global test case for the rise of populism, though there is some nuance. Trump, a businessman, was at least openly supported by some American CEOs enthused by his plans to cut taxes and regulation. Le Pen, however, is a career politician who has frequently criticized corporations.

Writing in local financial newspaper Les Echos, 13 CEOs of large French companies ended their silence this week, presumably hoping their opinions still hold weight with voters. There also is great fear in the local business community about the implications of Le Pen’s policy agenda, which would involve scrapping the euro and reintroducing the franc.

Such a move would be a “catastrophe” for the French people, Veolia CEO Antoine Frérot wrote. “It would result in higher prices for raw materials and imported goods,” he said.

Michelin CEO Jean-Dominique Senard said resulting inflation would put upward pressure on wages, triggering a “breakdown” in the tire maker’s global competitiveness. Airbus CEO Tom Enders, meanwhile, wrote to Macron pledging his “full support” in a letter published in LaTribune.

At least in their case, French CEOs appear to have more of the people on their side. The latest opinion polls predict Macron will win comfortably, with around 60% of the vote. But as recent votes in the U.S. and UK so clearly demonstrated, polls aren’t always to be trusted.


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