Jean Pisani-Ferry Mr. Hollande’s Secret Weapon

One of the most powerful figures in France operates largely in the shadows and is unknown beyond political circles, but the economic advisor to French President Françoise Hollande is playing an important role in reforming the country’s troubled economy and bloated bureaucracy.
The economics professor, advisor and strategist is said to be the force behind France' structural reform.

They usually work in the background and are largely unknown to the public, but advisors to a nation’s highest officials wield significant influence over the most powerful men and women in their country.

In France, it is strategist Jean Pisani-Ferry. An economics professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and former director of Bruegel, a think tank based in Brussels, he has been advising President Francois Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, since 2013. He is a key player in the country's reform efforts.

“For 15 years, France has been making promises it is not living up to,” Mr. Pisani-Ferry said, adding the nation has “a bad problem with its credibility.”

Despite that harsh judgement and pointed criticism, Mr. Hollande trusts Mr. Pisani-Ferry and last year asked him to work on a study titled, “France in 10 Years: The Construction Site of the Century.” The study will look at overhauling a wide variety of educational and public spending initiatives and develop a strategy for reform.

Our goal is not to be all things to all men. Jean Pisani-Ferry, French government advisor

Others are more skeptical of the economist. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is no fan of Mr. Pisani-Ferry. She parted ways with him when he suggested releasing euro bonds in exchange for giving control of national budget plans to the European Commission. Ms. Merkel opposed the idea, arguing it would mean the communalization of risks within the euro zone.

But Mr. Pisani-Ferry didn’t give up.  He continues to push other controversial ideas, always trying to find the best solution possible instead of telling people what they want to hear.

“Our goal is not to be all things to all men,” Mr. Pisani-Ferry said of himself and his team of 40 at France Stratégie, the group advising Mr. Hollande and his government.

His team helps develop legislative proposals, but also new ideas and perspectives that extend beyond the legislative period. “We are pathfinders and initiate debates that can trigger change,” he said.

His team recently released a study that found the government could create 830,000 new jobs by 2022 in the health care and IT sectors.

Mr. Pisani-Ferry is the son of a former minister, Edgar Pisani-Ferry, who held various positions in the French government. He studied engineering and mathematics before discovering economics and graduating with a degree in economics from the Centre d'études des programmes économiques, or CEPE, in Paris.

He was born in Boulogne-Billacourt, southwest of Paris, and has two children. He is a strong supporter of Europe and a Social Democrat, raising the question of whether his presence in the French government is a sign Mr. Hollande is willing and able to reform his country after all.

One clue is that Mr. Pisani-Ferry was handed a critical but controversial reform effort when Mr. Hollande asked him to study ways of reducing financial burdens on employers in exchange for job creation. Another major reform he is looking at is a regional reorganization including Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardennes. The government wants to reduce the 22 distinct regions into just 13, a move that would slash bureaucratic costs by an estimated €10 billion ($11.25 billion).

Mr. Pisani-Ferry has extensive experience working with ministers and other government offices. He was an economic advisor to former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, when he served as France's finance minister from 1997 to 1999.

“Jean has his own set of ideas, but he represents them with his own style,” said Gilles Fichelstein, a fellow economist and politician who is a friend of Mr. Pisani-Ferry.

Mr. Pisani-Ferry is believed to be a follower of the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, who counseled finding solutions by getting rid of old patterns instead of looking for flaws in new ideas.

Yet France Stratégie is part of the government and not as flexible and open-minded as the privately run Bruegel, where Mr. Pisani-Ferry was director from 2005 to 2013.

“France Stratégie is an agency,” he said. “But they called me, among others, to shake up that agency.” He acknowledged that it requires patience and time to get anything done within a government.

“One is happy when one’s own ideas are being recognized,” he said. “But politicians are not using those ideas straight away. That would only be for show and not substantial.”

 

This story first appeared in WirtschaftsWoche magazine. Franziska Scheven of Handelsblatt Global Edition contributed to the piece. To contact the author: [email protected]