His name has become synonymous with legal scandal. If Business France has made headlines in recent months, it has nothing to do with our trade deficit. The agency responsible for the attractiveness and support of our companies for export is the subject of a judicial investigation for nepotism for using Havas’ services, without launching a tender, during the organization of an expensive evening in Las Vegas in 2016 In sight: the current Minister of Labor, Murielle Pénicaud, CEO of the agency at the time. The 1,500 employees, who had to endure the horrors of a house search in June, waited impatiently for the arrival of his successor to finally be able to continue. And in the end Christophe Lecourtier was chosen by the Elysée. His appointment will be formalized by the Elysée in the coming days.
A public-private partnership
This 54-year-old senior Treasury official is making a comeback at home: he ran Ubifrance from 2008 to 2014, just before the latter merged with the French Agency for International Investments, to give birth to Business France. † His profile matched the line ministers. Lecourtier, a regular at right-wing ministerial offices, including Christine Lagarde’s in Bercy, has already shrugged off Emmanuel Moulin, the current chief of staff to Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire.
He then also worked as ambassador to Australia until April 2017 with the boss of the Quai d’Orsay, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was then working for the Ministry of Defence. Together they won the largest French military contract in history: the sale of twelve submarines for 35 billion euros, at the end of 2016. “Everyone mobilized to give political and financial support to the DCNS group is a good model,” says the new DIRECTOR.
At Business France, Lecourtier is flanked by a new (non-executive) president, Pascal Cagni, former vice president of Apple Europe and founder of C4 Ventures, a venture capital fund based in London and Paris. “I think the unions and staff have been reassured by the appointment of a complementary public-private tandem, which is a sign of this government’s ambition for the agency.”
The challenge that awaits them is daunting. For ten years the reforms followed one another without real results. Before the birth of Business France, his ancestor Ubifrance had already taken in the officials of the former economic missions of the embassies, under the auspices of Lecourtier. And more coordination had to see the light of day with the device of the “French export team”.
Unfortunately, the number of exporting companies – 124,000 in 2016 – is only stagnating. They are even less numerous than in the early 2000s! Suffice it to say that the target set this week by Jean-Yves Le Drian to aim for 200,000 seems a bit ambitious. The trade deficit reached 34.4 billion in the first half of 2017, a record since 2012. Even excluding oil imports (and arms sales), it continues to grow, from 5 to 23 billion in five years, against a background of deterioration of the market shares of French companies.
“Despite the reforms, the world of foreign trade is still too disparate, too fragmented, unclear to businesses, especially SMEs,” acknowledges Christophe Lecourtier. Several parliamentary reports have denounced the multiplicity of actors. The regions for which the state has strengthened their economic development powers have their own emergency response offices. The Chambers of Commerce and Industry (CCI) also have 400 territorial advisers who deal with international development. Not to mention the network of CCIs abroad, which employ 1,100 employees, the 3,800 voluntary foreign trade advisers and the various private export auxiliaries.
The threat of Bpifrance
Business France also faces competition from Bpifrance. The public bank is only supposed to provide financing expertise when Business France contributes its market expertise. Bpifrance’s initiatives in the field of communication and the organization of international fairs are destroying the flowerbeds of its less financially prosperous cousin.
During the presidential campaign, Bruno Le Maire, then candidate for the right-wing primaries, also came up with 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 Business France’s branches within the European Union, whose services would be provided by the CCIs.
But Lecourtier assures that he and Cagni are not appointed to play trustees. “Before the end of the year, my mission is to take stock of the first three years of its foundation and to propose an ambitious, more efficient and economical system.” In particular, Business France, which invoices some of its services to companies, will have to increase its own resources, while the subsidy paid by the state (100 million euros) continues to fall.