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Why French banks need a shake-out

Competition in French banking is distorted by an outdated legal framework. French banks need to be downsized and made more profitable. Their returns on equity and cost/income ratios are deplorable. Strong statements. But those aren't Euromoney's views, they're the views of Marc Viénot, chairman of one of France's biggest banks, Société Générale. He spoke to Felix Salmon

Paris's new business centre at La Défense is home to most of the major French banks. Société Générale towers, both literally and figuratively, over all of them. From the top of its new 35-storey headquarters, the chairman looks down on the top of the Grande Arche, up the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, and over to the Tour Eiffel. It's probably the best view in Paris.

Marc Viénot, SocGen's cigar-wielding, 67-year-old chairman, is as expansive as his views. He has centralized almost all SocGen's operations to La Défense and cut back on branch staff numbers. Now he's more interested in the growth area of his bank: commercial and investment banking outside France. He intends to expand international operations until they account for half of total profits.

London and New York, he says, should prepare themselves for dealing with a major new player, and it might not approach from France. Société Générale already has five branches in China, and is on the hunt for strategic acquisitions in Hong Kong. Emerging markets offer a much more level playing- field to medium-sized capital markets players than does the US.

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