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The French Exception: Sarkozy's Bonus Battle

For this week's Global Pulse episode, Bonus Battle, host Erin Coker asks whether France's new bonus restrictions are workable. Share your thoughts and watch this episode below!

A leader whose extravagant lifestyle once earned him the moniker "President Bling-Bling," Nicolas Sarkozy has adopted a tough stance against financial excess in recent weeks. Following national furor over banking giant BNP Paribas' partial use of government bailout funds to finance a one billion euro bonus payout, new rules require French banks to spread bonus payments over three years, with one-third of bonuses to be paid in stocks. If a trader's investments lose money, the trader also loses the bonus.

The French president has since taken his bonus battle to the international stage, calling for broad global measures to curb traders' compensation, including a fixed international limit on bonuses. Sarkozy even threatened to walk out of the G-20 summit if leaders fail to reach an agreement on bonuses.

European Commission President José Barroso told Bloomberg television that citizens "are horrified" by banks' use of government funds to pay bonuses, and that international bonus restrictions could "restore credibility to the financial system."

Although American and British leaders agree on the need for financial regulation, they have balked at the idea of bonus caps. President Obama is "reluctant to set individual compensation levels." It is looking like Sarkozy may compromise on the caps, as long as the larger package is put in place.

Debates over bank bonuses are also raging outside of the political sphere. Earlier this year, American and British outrage over executive bonuses spurred demonstrations from Wall Street to London. However, as the global economy shows signs of recovery, some experts have questioned the need to quell bonuses.

"I don't think, ultimately, people really care that much about banker bonuses," writes Daniel Indiviglio in a recent Atlantic Monthly article. "The only reason they do now is because there was a financial crisis. Once things get better, most of that anger dissipates." He adds: "The bonus culture isn’t what caused the financial crisis, it was a culmination of factors."

The Washington DC-based Institute for Policy Studies hailed the Sarkozy decision, arguing that European government action "will open up opportunities in Washington for real change to an executive compensation system that now threatens our economy and our democracy."

But even some French supporters are doubtful that the global financial world will embrace the measures. "Sarkozy's idea is a good one," Nicolas Bouchard, a 32-year-old Paris-based corporate attorney told Global Pulse in an email. "But it is a difficult one to carry out in a global system.  Paris is a small financial center in comparison with Wall Street or London."

One self-described French "utopist" offered another way that Sarkozy could display support for the end of economic excess. In an email to Global Pulse, Alexandre Carpentier, 28, challenged summit attendees to forgo luxury hotels in favor of more modest accommodations.

"It would help the local economy, there would be less rioting and people would be proud of their leaders," the Paris-based competition lawyer explained.

A bit of a stretch? Probably. But a reminder that in a world recovering from financial fallout, public scrutiny is on political leaders as much as it is on banks -- particularly a president trying to distance himself from a "bling-bling" image.


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The French Exception: Sarkozy's Bonus Battle