The meddling M. Macron
According to new reports on Monday, consolidation in telecoms is back on the agenda, with Bouygues Telecom being the favourite prey. Bouygues is the only company to have vigorously denied any talk of merger with one of the three other operators, Orange, SFR or Free.
This is not the first time that such discussions or negotiations have been in the news: at the beginning of 2016, actual negotiations between Orange (ex. France Telecom) and Bouygues Telecom, owned by the Bouygues building and public works company, but also the owner of the TV station, TF1, were about to culminate in merger between the two operators when the deal was reportedly scuppered by none other than Emmanuel Macron, the Minister for Economic Affairs at the time and now of course one of the front-running candidates in the presidential elections in April and May. The reason mooted for his refusal was his hostility to the idea that the family-controlled Bouygues group could take a large stake in a company of which the French State still holds 34%.
If this is true, that episode casts M. Macron in a somewhat different light than has been projected so far. When he became the Minister of Economic Affairs of the newly appointed Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, he was seen, like M. Valls himself, as the modernising face of the French Socialist party. Although he had been to the same elite schools from which most of the French establishment come (Sciences Politiques Paris and ENA), he had also worked for a time, unusually for a minister of a socialist government, as an investment banker and was considered to have few of the hang-ups about economic liberalism and the role of markets that still encumber old style socialist champions of the disappearing working class and ideological class warriors. True to this modernist image, M. Macron went on to sponsor legislation that aimed to liberalise a number of sectors by introducing more competition into slumbering or monopoly areas as disparate as express coaches, Sunday trading and some parts of the legal profession.
It had however been forgotten, until the collapse of the deal between Orange and Bouygues, that M. Macron had also, some months before, miraculously found a large dollop of French taxpayers money to pay for a bigger stake in Renault, of which the State already owned 15%, in order to maintain its influence at a Shareholders General Meeting that threatened to dilute it.
His apparent refusal to countenance increased influence over Orange by a private telecoms operator appeared to be driven by the same motives.
One of the tempting conclusions from all this is that M. Macron, for all his youth, modernity and supposed lack of dogmatism, qualities which make him an attractive candidate to a French electorate in despair of the mainstream right and left wing political parties, also shows the interventionist reflexes of generations of French politicians and senior civil servants going all the way back to Louis 14th and his famous: ‘L’état, c’est moi”.
The wider question, to be explored further in this blog, is whether the leopard can change his spots and become, if elected, the pragmatic and reforming president that a majority of French voters say they want.