[Marxism] BlackRock Becomes a Symbol for Anticapitalist Fervor in France

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Feb 15 13:05:22 MST 2020


NY Times, Feb. 15, 2020
BlackRock Becomes a Symbol for Anticapitalist Fervor in France
By Liz Alderman

PARIS — The video shows footprints in blood-red paint tracked by 
militant protesters across BlackRock’s French headquarters. Documents 
litter the floors. On the walls, black spray-painted graffiti denounces 
the company as “criminal.”

Just a few months ago, BlackRock, the U.S. money-management giant, was 
barely known to the general public in France. But as President Emmanuel 
Macron presses ahead with a controversial campaign to overhaul the 
French economy, the company has become a favorite target for growing 
anticapitalist sentiment.

Protesters claim BlackRock has tried to influence — and stands to profit 
from — Mr. Macron’s overhaul of the nation’s pension system. They point 
to cordial meetings between Mr. Macron and Laurence D. Fink, the founder 
and chief executive of BlackRock. And they fear the huge Wall Street 
firm — its $7 trillion under management is more than twice France’s 
economic output — is working behind the scenes to pick apart the 
country’s system of social protections.

The protests escalated with the action on Monday morning, when 
environmental activists who allege French workers’ pensions could be 
directed by BlackRock stormed the company’s offices.

Last month, trade unions and members of the Yellow Vest movement led a 
raucous crowd to the historic Le Centorial building, where BlackRock has 
its offices, lighting flares and denouncing what they said was an effort 
to impose American-style free-market rules on France.

There is no evidence that BlackRock influenced Mr. Macron to push 
retirement savings to it or any other financial giant, although 
financial firms could get some business from part of the pension 
overhaul that encourages high earners to invest in stocks.

And BlackRock strenuously denies the claims. “We deplore the fact that 
our company continues to be caught up in an unfounded controversy driven 
by political objectives,” it said in a statement. “We reiterate that 
BlackRock has never been involved in the current pension reform project 
and does not intend to be.”

Yet BlackRock’s role as an adviser to governments and central banks and 
as a major shareholder in some of the world’s biggest companies has 
quickly made it a symbol in a country that has long been deeply 
skeptical of capitalism and the stock market. The social climate here 
has grown more tense after recent nationwide strikes to protest the 
pension overhaul.

BlackRock has tried to portray itself as an industry leader in 
responsible investing. The protesters on Monday cited BlackRock 
investments in the French oil giant Total and the construction company 
Vinci as running counter to that.

In an influential annual letter to leaders of the world’s largest 
companies, Mr. Fink said last month that his firm would make investment 
decisions with environmental sustainability as a core goal. On 
Wednesday, BlackRock said one of its fast-growing green-oriented funds 
would stop investing in companies that got revenue from the Alberta oil 
sands.

Such actions have done little to placate the company’s growing cadre of 
critics in France, where it manages 27 billion euros in assets for local 
clients and invests over €185 billion, or $200 billion, in French 
equities and corporate and government bonds.

Parliament will start debating next week the bill that aims to overhaul 
the nation’s convoluted pension system. Although the system has been 
criticized for being too generous, the incidence of poverty among older 
people in France is one of the lowest in the world — and far lower than 
in the United States.

The measure seems likely to pass because Mr. Macron’s party commands an 
absolute majority, despite attempts by opponents to obstruct the bill 
with more than 22,000 amendments. It is expected to move to the Senate 
in April.

In the meantime, more demonstrations have been called, including new 
strikes and protests on Thursday. BlackRock is likely to remain a ripe 
target for frustration.

The controversy broke open in December when Mr. Macron unveiled details 
of his proposal to standardize France’s 42 public and private pension 
schemes into one state-managed plan. Critics had already accused the 
president, a former investment banker, of favoring the rich with an 
earlier measure to reduce taxes on high earners, a step that resonated 
in a country where wealth is increasingly associated with injustice.

Opponents seized on a public BlackRock analyst note describing pension 
investment options in France — a sign, they said, that Wall Street’s 
biggest asset manager was seeking to profit.

The document noted that the investment-wary French hold huge piles of 
savings in cash, bonds and nonfinancial assets but “disappointingly” 
little in stocks. (A recent study by the International Monetary Fund 
showed that only 5 percent of French households’ total financial assets 
are in stocks. That figure is nearly 34 percent for U.S. households, 
according to 2016 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation 
and Development.)

Soon, activists began circulating photos on social media of Mr. Fink 
sitting next to Mr. Macron at a green finance summit in the Élysée 
Palace in July as proof of chummy ties.

French media ran articles highlighting BlackRock’s assessment as a sign 
that the company is eager to see France’s state-run pension scheme tilt 
toward the American system, where workers often save for pensions 
through investments.

In reality, Mr. Macron’s blueprint would instead largely keep France’s 
publicly funded pay-as-you-go system in place, a point some trade unions 
have recently acknowledged. An editorial on Wednesday in the French 
economic magazine Le Point defended BlackRock as being the victim of 
“conspiratorial diatribes,” adding that the company was being made into 
a “new French scapegoat.”

Opponents insist that Mr. Macron’s plan still opens France to the 
influence of companies like BlackRock.

They point to a measure that would cut pension payroll taxes on people 
earning more than €120,000 annually — less than 1 percent of France’s 
work force — and encourage them to invest in private pension funds.

Addressing the National Assembly, Olivier Marleix, a conservative 
lawmaker from the party Les Républicains, said the proposal would divert 
money away from France’s social safety net. “You are offering three 
billion euros to pension funds,” he said. “BlackRock’s business will 
thrive in France.”

It didn’t help BlackRock’s image among dissidents when Mr. Macron 
elevated the president of BlackRock France, Jean-François Cirelli, a 
former civil servant who worked for two previous French presidents, to 
the rank of officer of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest order of 
merit, just as strikes over the pension changes reached a peak in early 
January.

The news lit up social media and triggered a fresh storm of criticism 
that the American fund was too cozy with Mr. Macron, and would profit 
from the pension changes.

“BlackRock is simply the dark side of the pension reform,” Olivier 
Faure, the secretary general of the Socialist Party, told French television.

Mr. Cirelli hit back at what he said was “an unfounded and irrational” 
controversy.

“We are being used for political ends in a conflict that is not ours,” 
he said, adding that BlackRock “is not a pension fund, does not 
distribute any retirement savings product and has no intention of doing so.”

Such statements have not appeased opponents. “BlackRock is an emblem,” 
said Benoît Martin, the head of the Paris branch of the militant General 
Confederation of Labor union. Mr. Martin said he was among the first 
wave of protesters to storm BlackRock France’s headquarters in January.

“You have Larry Fink meeting with President Macron,” he added. “We’re 
concerned about the influence of BlackRock in French politics.”

The union has called for more demonstrations and strikes to protest the 
changes. And BlackRock, Mr. Martin said, is likely to remain a target.

Youth for Climate France, one of the groups that ransacked the offices 
on Monday, said in a statement that the protests were “symptomatic of 
capitalism, which is at the origin of these problems.”

“By attacking BlackRock, we’re attacking capitalism,” the group said.

Constant Méheut contributed reporting.



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