French capitalism has not been quite the same since Friday. One of its great figures, Denis Kessler, died following a long illness, at the age of 71. A singular character who has traveled all over the world of the economy, starting with university research before branching off into employer representation and then becoming boss himself, at the head of the reinsurer Scor since 2002 and of which he was still the president.
Denis Kessler was first of all a CV as long as your arm. A graduate of HEC, but also in philosophy, political science and applied economics, twice accredited in economics and social sciences, doctor (in economics), also a professor – he who, at 38, was the youngest elected to the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS). In 1990, he became president of the French Federation of Insurance Companies, one of the most powerful employers' organisations, and thus became a key figure in the CNPF, the ancestor of Medef, at the time headed by Jean Gandois. In 1999, Ernest-Antoine Sellière chose him as number two. Denis Kessler then embodies the fight of the bosses against the 35 hours imposed by the government of Lionel Jospin with Martine Aubry in charge. Rude defeat. But the whole of France discovers on this occasion this man as brilliant as thunderous, skilful and intractable at the same time.
In 2002, Denis Kessler took over the management of the company. He had made an incursion in 1997-1998 at Axa, probably seeking the succession of Claude Bébéar for which Henri de Castries was finally chosen. Five years later, the base is less prestigious but the mission much more noble: we must save Scor, the large French reinsurer, threatened with bankruptcy after the attacks of September 11. The economist, who has become a great negotiator on the social and political scene, proves to be an extraordinary captain in the storm that the company is going through. The recovery of the reinsurer operated under his direction is spectacular.
As often in this kind of adventure, the destinies of the company and the boss end up confusing. Denis Kessler pulled out his claws and fangs to repel the offensive of the mutualist group Covea. He struggled to let go of the helm to a general manager. Two – Benoit Ribadeau-Dumas then Laurent Rousseau – were scuttled before the appointment at the start of the year of Thierry Léger, who came from competitor Swiss Re. general meeting of shareholders and swept aside questions about its governance. The company will soon choose its successor to the presidency. It will be different, of course, since "on Buffon's table of species nomenclature, Kessler is irreplaceable even by cloning", launched Denis Kessler.
A final projection in public, typical of this formidable man of intelligence and spirit. In the business world, he was the statue of the commander, guardian of a radical liberalism as it was displayed much more in the 1980s or 1990s than today. The 35 hours, the announced bankruptcy of the pension system, the mad dash of public spending and the state debt, Kessler knocked every time he had the opportunity. "I am made to appear as a provocateur", he would say falsely ingenuously, but "my word is only that of a common-sense observer".
Kessler had it is true the classic course of the most relentless liberals, those who started on the left. At HEC, he fought for free tuition. In college, his mentor was called Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He didn't end up being a good social democrat; he never ceased to defend private enterprise and to want to push back the infinite extension of the domain of the State. A pure Schumpeterian, as evidenced by his vibrant plea, before the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences which elected him in 2016, for the competition, "engine of economic history, both creative and destructive". “Accepting competition means accepting being contested in the economic sense of the term, that is to say being ousted from the market, overtaken by more efficient competitors, supplanted by technologies that cannot to master. »
These words reflect the passion of man for movement, progress. Denis Kessler, who was also a member of the committee of wise men of the Dassault group (owner of Le Figaro), was curious, never satisfied. Under his leadership, Scor bought several publishing houses, Presses Universitaires de France, Belin, and Éditions de l'Observatoire. Insurance was a vocation, combining his taste for mathematics and probabilities with the depth of his culture, especially history. The touchy boss could, out of professional necessity, dive at leisure into the chronicle of the catastrophes that have struck humanity and recount all the events whose probability is negligible but whose possibility is terrifying. At the Scor headquarters on avenue Kléber, laid out according to his instructions – and his detestation of light switches – he guided his guests from room to room with the affability of the best of hosts while discussing the terrible damage to be expected from a solar storm. The role of Philipillus announcing the cataclysm for public finances or for the planet suited him like a glove. Because he also put humor into it.
See also | In 2017, Denis Kessler, then CEO of the Scor group, was Bertille Bayart's guest for Le Grand Witness: