French entrepreneur takes on Hollande business policies

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Northern France

  • Published
Media caption,
French business groups say that the pace of reform in France is too slow

A 46-year-old businesswoman who makes nuts and bolts for heavy industry has become a folk hero for disaffected French entrepreneurs after she gave a televised dressing-down to President Francois Hollande on the travails of running a company.

Karine Charbonnier-Beck was hailed as a bold speaker of truth to power for her appearance three weeks ago on the TF1 programme Face aux Francais (Face to Face with the French), in which the president was questioned by members of the public.

Her frank denunciation of the government's business policies, and refusal to be impressed by President Hollande's attempts to explain, made an instant hit.

After being inundated with mostly complimentary tweets and emails from across the country, she has now been offered a regular slot on one of France's leading radio chat-shows.

'Humble level'

"I thought it was important to tell the president exactly what we have to go through as small business-owners," she says in an interview at the Beck Industries factory in Armentieres, on the Belgian border.

Image caption,
Karine Charbonnier-Beck put President Hollande on the back foot during her televised appearance

"When French people think about business, they automatically imagine rich tycoons and the CEOs of massive multinationals.

"They don't realise that most of the work is done at a much more humble level. After the broadcast I got so many messages from viewers saying how refreshing it was to hear things from a different angle."

Process of 'complexification'

In the television programme, Ms Charbonnier-Beck upbraided the president for failing to understand the reality of running a business.

She said that by simply moving a few kilometres across the frontier into Belgium, she could save Beck Industries €3m ($3.7m/£2.3m) in taxes and charges every year. Her staff would also earn more because of lower payroll taxes.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The heads of medium and small businesses joined a protest this week against excessive taxes and red tape

Ms Charbonnier-Beck said that President Hollande had failed to live up to his promise to simplify red tape. In fact, she said, there had been a process of "complexification"; and she urged a reform of the trade union system which, in its current form, hindered industrial relations.

As for the president's responses, she says she was distinctly unimpressed.

"I imagined that he would have come prepared for the event and used the section with me to announce some new initiative on business. But there was nothing of the kind.

"I didn't have the feeling he was listening to anything I said. The answers had nothing to do with my questions. It is impossible to know what the president really thinks about anything. He says whatever he thinks the people he is with will want to hear."

Crumbling industrial heritage

Ms Charbonnier-Beck is the fourth generation of her family to run Beck Industries, which was set up in 1919 in a town destroyed in World War One.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
President Hollande's government will unveil a new law next week to boost investment and jobs

Armentieres, which lies a little south of Ypres, was on the frontline for four years.

After meeting at one of France's top business schools HEC, she and her husband Hugues began at the company 20 years ago. Ten years ago they took over the reins from Karine's father.

"After HEC we had the chance to go to the US. There was a choice: Harvard or Armentieres. Naturally we chose Armentieres," laughs Ms Charbonnier-Beck.

'Proud of achievements'

With its crumbling industrial heritage and surrounding fields of Brussels sprouts, Armentieres may not be the most picturesque of locations.

But it has provided a solid base for the business.

Today the company owns factories at Aberdeen and Wolverhampton in the UK, as well as in Belgium and Germany.

The factories all make heavy bolts and fastenings for use in the oil, gas and nuclear power industries. Overall Beck employs some 700 people.

Image caption,
The company could save €3m in taxes and charges every year by crossing the border into Belgium

"We have been very impressed by the British approach to business. It is so very different from the French way," says Hugues Charbonnier.

"In France we are very good at mastering a core of competences and really excelling at them. But in the UK there is always the desire to move on, to try something new. Probably the perfect world would involve a synthesis of the two approaches."

Karine says that she and her husband are very proud of what they have achieved.

"We know we are a very good company," she says.

"But we need to invest if we are to stay ahead of the competition. And the only way we can do that is if we start making more profits. That means there have to be lower charges."

And has taking on the president had any effect? Has the publicity gone to her head?

"Not a bit of it. I have started turning down requests for interviews and the radio appearance will only be one evening every couple of weeks," she says.

"It is important to get our message across. But work comes first."

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