What is the future of Business France?

His name has become synonymous with legal scandal. If Business France has been making headlines in recent months, it has nothing to do with our trade deficit. The agency responsible for the attractiveness and support of our export companies is under judicial investigation for favoritism for their use of Havas services, without an invitation to bid, during the organization of an expensive evening in Las Vegas 2016 on the horizon: current Secretary of Labor Muriel Benecaud, then the agency’s executive director. Therefore, the 1,500 staff, who had experienced the horrors of searching in June, were anxiously awaiting the arrival of his successor so that they could finally move forward. Finally, Christophe Lecourtier was chosen by the Elysee. His appointment will be formalized in the coming days by the Elysee.

Public-private partnership

This 54-year-old senior Treasury official is coming home: He led Ubifrance from 2008 to 2014, before the latter merged with the French Agency for International Investments, spawning Business France. His profile fits the line minister. Lecourtier in right-wing ministerial offices, including Christine Lagarde in Bercy, used to already deal with Emmanuel Molin, current chief of staff to Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire.

Then, as ambassador to Australia until April 2017, he also worked with the head of the Quai d’Orsay, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was then in the Defense Department. Together they won the largest French military contract in history: the sale of twelve submarines for 35 billion euros, at the end of 2016. “All mobilized to provide political and financial support to the DCNS group is a good example,” says the new newspaper CEO.

In Business France, Lecourtier is surrounded by a new president (non-executive), Pascal Cagni, former vice president of Apple Europe and founder of C4 Ventures, a venture capital fund in London and Paris. “I think unions and staff have been reassured by the appointment of a complementary public-private tandem, which is an indication of this government’s ambition for the agency.”

Insufficient results

The challenge ahead of them is daunting. For ten years, the reforms continued to follow each other without the results actually being in place. Before the birth of Business France, its predecessor Ubifrance had already assimilated civil servants into the former economic missions of embassies, under the auspices of Lecourtier. It was supposed to see greater daylight coordination with the “French Export Team” apparatus.

Unfortunately, the number of exporting firms – 124,000 in 2016 – is stagnating. They are fewer in number than in the early 2000s! Suffice it to say that the target, set this week by Jean-Yves Le Drian, a target of 200,000, seems a bit ambitious. As for the trade deficit, it reached 34.4 billion in the first half of 2017, a record since 2012. Even with the removal of oil imports (and arms sales), it continues to widen, from 5 to 23 billion in five years, on the back of deteriorating quotas French companies in the market.

“Despite the reforms, the world of foreign trade is still very uneven and very fragmented, and it is not clear to companies, especially small and medium-sized ones,” acknowledges Christophe Lecourtier. Several parliamentary reports denounced the multiplicity of actors. The regions, in which the state has consolidated its powers in relation to economic development, have their own commercial assistance agencies. The Chambers of Commerce and Industry (CCI) also have 400 regional consultants who specialize in international development. Not to mention the network of CCIs abroad, which employs 1,100 employees, 3,800 volunteer foreign trade advisors, and several private export aid firms.

Threat Bpifrance

Business France is also facing competition from Bpifrance. A public bank is supposed to provide financial expertise only when Business France provides its expertise in the market. In fact, Bpifrance’s initiatives in terms of contact and organization of international exhibitions are outstripping the flowerbeds of its less financially affluent cousin.

During the presidential campaign, Bruno Le Maire, then a candidate for the right-wing primaries, imagined a radical solution: the creation of a single export service under the auspices of Bpifrance, of which Business France would become a simple subsidiary. The current Minister of Economy even mentioned the closure of branches of Business France within the European Union, whose services will be provided by CCIs.

But Lecourtier maintains that he and Cagni were not set to play bankruptcy trustees. “By the end of the year, my job is to evaluate the first three years of incorporation and make proposals for an ambitious, more efficient, and more economical system.” Business France, which bills some of its services to companies, will have to increase its own resources in particular while the subsidy paid by the state (100 million euros) continues to decline.

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