Banking: France’s mere mortals are alive and well
French bankers, like its politicians, do best when they promise less and achieve more – especially on the international stage.
Every French presidential election sees the search for a mythic providential man to lead the nation out of crisis. Emmanuel Macron has a better claim than his predecessor to succeed Louis XIV, Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle. Nicknamed Jupiter, after the Roman god, he has captured the political centre ground and wants to liberalize and relaunch the economy.
Finding a man to make France great again seems a little absurd in the 21st century. If French banks are to avoid looking equally ridiculous, they too must mostly accept second-tier status among the great powers of global finance. Their best chance of leadership is in Europe, where they have performed better than the big German and Italian banks of late.
The aftermath of the financial crisis has forced French banks to recognize their fragility, even within Europe. BNP Paribas has recently done well by setting realistic goals and thanks to small and considered acquisitions. All the big French banks have come to a similar realization. The difference is a matter of degree. The extreme is BPCE, the smallest of the big four. Its listed wholesale and asset-gathering division, Natixis, has proudly cut risk-weighted assets by 7% in the past four years.