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Viénot’s corporate governance gospel

With foreign investment in France burgeoning, corporate governance had to catch up with international standards, borrowing from Anglo-Saxon ideas and practice. Marc Viénot, former head of Socété Générale, has taken on the mission of converting French companies. His reports laid down key guidelines that many companies now accept. But there have been some laggards and, to Viénot’s regret, the government wants to impose legal obligations.

Marc Viénot, a small coffee by his side, lights his cigar with an elegant match as long as a credit card. Here, on the 37th floor of the Société Générale headquarters at La Défense in Paris, the honorary chairman oozes French tradition. It seems remarkable that he is also responsible for revolutionizing the way French companies are being run.

Viénot describes himself as "independent-minded". Others describe him as a godfather - not a mafia don, but rather a mentor to many French executives. It is only a man like this who can drive nearly all the companies in the CAC 40, France's blue-chip index, to accept and apply principles of corporate governance without any prodding from the government.

Indeed, that is what makes France's acceptance of corporate governance impressive. In a country known for its old-boy network, large companies have begun to regulate themselves and get rid of practices that are imbedded in the culture.

Now the government wants to get involved. The French parliament is debating a bill on economic regulation that would make principles of corporate governance obligatory. Analysts agree that some aspects, such as greater transparency and guidelines for the role of chairman and selection of the executive board, are appropriate for French companies.

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