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France: Breaking the foreign taboo

French banks have given up their global ambitions with mere survival occupying their minds. The task of slimming down and restructuring is made more difficult by French aversions to job losses and hostile takeovers. But, like it or not, brash Anglo-American ideas about markets and management are being taken on board, reports Jonathan Ford.

It is a measure of the crisis gripping France's banking sector that two of the country's most respected financial institutions, Paribas and Banque Indosuez, have recently turned to US management consultancy McKinsey to advise them on restructuring their businesses. "This is breaking a taboo in a country as anti-American as France," jokes one investment banker. "They must have been pretty desperate to take such a step."

Both banks are struggling with low profitability and the costly legacy of over-ambitious expansion strategies in the 1980s. But their decision to tackle these problems with restructuring plans designed by American consultants, stressing such Anglo-Saxon virtues as focus, profitability and management accountability, is seen as a sign that the ill-health of the financial sector is finally forcing French bankers to rethink the way they do business.

Last year was another bad year for French banks and this one promises to be little better. Their profits continue to be low, provisions against bad loans remain high, rating agencies have been busy lowering their assessments across the sector and domestic competition is more intense than ever.

Hardly had the 1995 results season got under way at the end of February when confidence was dealt another blow as Paribas reported a Ffr4 billion ($800 million) loss for the year, far greater than most analysts had anticipated.

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