Hordes of clean-cut French financiers, fresh from long summer breaks, puff on cigarettes outside the glass towers looming over their purpose-built soulless kingdom of La Défense, to the northwest of Paris.
Vainly trying to shelter from the elements in this man-made wind tunnel, most try to plot a return to the welcoming cafés on the other side of the Arc De Triomphe, tantalisingly visible from their high-rise HQs.
But there is also a deeper Gallic malaise among some of the investment bankers, fund managers and support staff peopling the big French finance houses such as SocGen and Axa present here, and the likes of BNP Paribas and Crédit Agricole in the sophisticated arrondissements to the south.
There is a belief that being at the very nerve centre of French finance is no longer something to be proud of, that the French brand today is more about fashion, food and luxury goods. There are plenty of senior bankers both here and in rival cities, prepared to say Paris is “a joke” compared to London.
The times of the great leaders in asset management, who bestrode the mighty Parisian houses at the turn of the millennium, may as well be consigned to the days of the French Enlightenment of the 19th century.
The services of bon viveur Philippe Collas, known as “the Fox” of French finance, plotting from his favourite basement dining room at Société Générale, were dispensed with after enhanced money market funds hit a difficult period.
His opposite number at BNP Paribas, Gilles Glicenstein, was a much-loved academic who encountered huge resistance to his pioneering advocacy of using third-party products. Back in the summer of 2007, he bravely opted to freeze three funds investing in asset-backed securities, which some claim triggered the credit crisis. Sadly, he died of natural causes in his mid-40s.
These two leaders embraced the Frenchness of their organisations, particularly through their love of quant-led methodology taught at the country’s elite grandes écoles.
Their successors see their origins as a burden rather than a blessing.
“Our management team globally is perhaps too French and too western European, which is something we need to correct over time,” says Patrick Follea, deputy chief executive of the €90bn private banking franchise at Société Générale. It is the same story across town at BNP Paribas, where co-chief executive Vincent Lecomte holds court at the €265bn wealth management franchise. “Our experts are not in Paris,” he stresses, with key staff more likely to be stationed in London, European priority markets such as Italy and Belgium or in the ultimate wealth destination of Asia.
By shaking off the “made in France” label, these groups hope any vestiges of rigidity, outdated labour practices and resistance to change will end.
But as they gain in efficiency, these US-style powerhouses in the making also stand to lose the artisan touch for which the French have always been feted.
After all, there is a successful coterie of smaller French asset managers – including Neuflize, Carmignac and La Française – which take pride in their roots, heritage and personal service.
“Industrialisation is all very well for the crisis environment, when clients are looking for very basic products,” says the head of a major French funds house. “But when the markets come back, they are crying out for alpha creation.”
The boutiques have been taking steps to meet these demands. La Française, which recently rebranded to highlight its French provenance alongside that of luxury French foods and wines, manages nearly €40bn in a combination of real estate, equity and bond funds.
Yet such companies face a challenging future. So far, the vast majority of their clients have been French investors seeking at least a temporary home. “Soon enough, the French market will no longer be there to fund the growth of domestic players,” warns Richard Bruyère of Paris consultancy Image & Finance. The only fast autoroute to expansion will be an international one, he claims.
This means that those groups ready to shake off their French habits may prove the more resilient in the long term. Indeed, what is refreshing among the giants of La Défense are their multicultural workforces, still missing from the more genteel locations in the centre of Paris. They are also increasingly focusing on attracting money from entrepreneurs, rather than the old money flowing into some French boutiques.
If they can encourage real co-operation between wealth management, investment and capital markets arms, boosted by improved reward structures, these angst-ridden French fund franchises may yet surprise us.
Yuri Bender is editor-in-chief of Professional Wealth Management