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London's bankers beginning to fear 'hard' Brexit, warns Paris lobby chief

In the wake of Brexit, Paris is one of the major European cities that could end up as a destination for banking and insurance business that may be forced to move from London, particularly if the U.K. fails to negotiate continued access to the EU single market for its financial services. Financial industry lobby Europlace is behind the push to make Paris more attractive for banks that may relocate out of London. S&P Global Market Intelligence spoke to Europlace's managing director, Arnaud de Bresson, about the benefits of Paris over other European cities. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: What measures have you put in place that will make Paris more attractive for bankers?

Arnaud de Bresson: Brexit has created a dynamic in Paris' financial center bringing together business leaders and the government, the prime minister and the Paris mayor, the president of Paris region, both on the right and the left of the political spectrum. The government has committed to reducing corporate taxes from 33% to 28% by 2020, with a reduction for small and medium-sized companies in 2017. There is also the improvement of tax breaks for "impatriates," which is equivalent to the British non-doms. This is a regime that permits tax breaks for international managers who come to work in Paris. The head of a large international bank in Paris, thanks to the impatriate manager tax regime, pays taxes of 30% compared to 43% in London. So it is a regime that makes Paris more competitive, not only with regards to London but also with other European financial centers. Its length has also been extended to eight from five years. There will also be the implementation of a dedicated welcome program for international companies with the Paris region and Paris town hall and the creation of more international programs in schools and more international schools in the Paris region, which already total more than 30.

What kind of contacts have you had with financial institutions who are thinking of moving to Paris?

We have met a lot of financial companies, banks and investors in London, New York City, Tokyo and Beijing. A few weeks ago, the thinking coming out of our meetings was that the best thing would be if the United Kingdom came back into the union and things would be business as usual. But since [U.K. Prime Minister Theresa] May's declarations regarding the triggering of Article 50, the situation has completely changed. The majority of international companies believe they must look into the possibility of relocating part of their activities into the European Union. A certain number of large international banks are realizing that 60% to 70% of their European investment banking activities are concentrated in London, and that is a risky situation. When there is a prospect of Brexit or an exit from the European Union, this is a high-risk situation and for that reason, a certain number of institutions have started working on how they could rebalance their activities so they can diversify their activities and their risk in Europe. Of course, the upcoming prospect of a Brexit or a hard Brexit increases this risk factor.

What are the benefits of Paris as a financial marketplace?

Paris has three or four structural advantages. When we look at asset management and capital risk, Paris is much stronger than Frankfurt. Frankfurt has highly developed its expertise in derivatives with stock market platform Eurex, especially regulated rate derivatives. It has a strong banking industry, even if the situation of German banks is a bit problematic. Paris is a financial market that is much more diversified in equity and in equity derivatives. It is home to four French banks among the top six European banks and has an asset management industry that is double that of Germany. ... Paris is also very capital-market minded with a development of the new channels of financing. The development of fintechs, the so-called French tech, is spectacular. There is a huge pool of talent. The French are very active in trading rooms in London and New York. London will remain the large international market place that London has always been and will always be. But rebalancing some euro activities to Paris-based trading rooms could help Paris grow. Our objective is to build a competitive European market, and we compete against America and China so we need to keep working together.

How would you counter claims that France is not a very business-friendly country?

The perception is more negative than the reality. Under the current government, things have moved. Today, taxes in France are in line with the European average or even more advantageous. Our fiscal and social costs are lower in France than in Germany. Paris is more competitive than Germany even if we are less competitive than London. Things have started moving in terms of labor laws, which are now more flexible. The [35-hour work week] does not exist anymore. We are at the forefront of pushing for reforms, which need to go further.

How will the French presidential elections in 2017 impact Paris' position as a financial marketplace?

We are expecting a lot from the presidential election. The question of Paris as a financial marketplace should be considered as a priority for the country. Reforms ... must continue in terms of taxes and labor laws. There needs to be more flexibility in labor contracts to take into account companies' needs and to help them adapt to market changes. We want candidates to accelerate the reduction of corporate taxes. We want them to go further than what already has been announced and at a faster pace.

What are the chances that Paris will be home to key European institutions such as the European Banking Authority, which is based in London?

We think that European agencies must come back to the European Union, so Paris is a candidate for the European Banking Authority. Among the six largest European banks, there are four French banks which are banks in good health, there is one German bank, Deutsche Bank which is not in good health, and there is a Spanish bank. Paris is the best positioned within the European banking sector with BNP Paribas, Société Générale, Crédit Agricole, Groupe BPCE with Natixis. French banks have gotten through the crisis. They have strengthened their equity and they are in good health.