Business Eye on French Election

The Associated Press
Saturday, May 5, 2007; 3:31 AM

LA DEFENSE, France -- The suits are sober and the towers are flashy in this little Manhattan on the Seine, a high-intensity business district rising beyond the Arc de Triomphe that breaks with the stereotype of a France that dawdles in cafes and shuns hard work.

"There's nothing more dynamic than what you see here," said Remy Fontanet, 26, taking a lunch break at the foot of the coal-black tower housing nuclear giant Areva where he works as a buyer. "But what is here isn't representative of France."

La Defense is an ultramodern slice of France that embraces capitalism and views Sunday's presidential election with an eye toward the bottom line.

The choice is between Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, the pro-market frontrunner, and Segolene Royal, 53, a socialist who promises a pragmatic approach. Economic growth in France was only 2 percent last year, less than half the world average.

Both candidates say they want France to reclaim its role as a world business leader, something the people at La Defense already pursue _ sometimes in ways that rankle the average Frenchman.

The companies headquartered at La Defense bring in most of their revenue from foreign lands with mostly foreign employees _ cheaper and easier to hire and fire than French workers. A full 80 percent of the profit of companies on the French stock exchange, the CAC40, are made outside France, said economist Nicolas Bouzou.

At La Defense, the mostly management-level personnel work for as long as it takes, not heeding the country's 35-hour work week.

Big profits and big salaries at big companies have been "demonized" during the campaign, said Justin Dai, 26, an employee at Areva. "I don't agree that companies with very high profits should be penalized," he said.

Royal, should she win, would likely go after companies like petroleum giant Total, which recorded $17 billion in profits in 2006. Her 100-point "presidential pact" specifically calls for developing public transport via a tax on the "superprofits" of oil companies.

Among proposals to stimulate growth, Sarkozy would end taxation of extra work hours in the 35-hour week, applicable to only a portion of employees at La Defense.

"We are in the midst of globalization but not ready to take advantage of it," said Alexis Vincent-Falquet, 26, an auditor for Ernst & Young, standing in the shadow of the La Defense tower housing Total. "The French can't live without others, but if you say it you're treated like a capitalist."

"The French are afraid," he said.

Vincent-Falquet said there must be new flexibility in France's rigid system governing labor laws and ample social benefits. But like others, he is not ready to forego what all consider the best of France: the minimum wage that, at $1,644 a month, is among Europe's highest; guaranteed low-cost health care; long vacations. For those without a job, there is a guaranteed minimum income.

"Each little French person is raised with this ... It's part of our culture," Vincent-Falquet said. Like so many other French, he wants "adjustments" to spread opportunities and wealth _ but not too many.

"We must at all costs save the system" of social protections, he said. "Maybe diminish it but not do away with it. That's the one thing as a French man I'm proud of."

© 2007 The Associated Press