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Caisse deputy heeds 'calling' in move to join French politics

Roland Lescure, chief investment officer of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec has left his post to join the political campaign of centrist French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The chief investment officer of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec has left his post to join the political campaign of centrist French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, saying he could not sit idly and watch his native country potentially fall into the hands of the extreme right.

Roland Lescure described his decision to switch gears at the age of 50 as "a calling" that became progressively clearer in his mind after the shocks of Britain voting to leave the European Union and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. He said he sees both events as a victory of fear over hope, of simple solutions over the profound thinking necessary in a complex world.

"I've been personally very affected by the Brexit results, which came as a storm to me," Mr. Lescure told The Globe and Mail in an interview Thursday. The finance specialist met his Irish wife in Brussels 25 years ago. He previously worked as an economist in France's government, helping build the euro, before moving to the private sector. He describes himself as a true European.

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"The fact that the European Union risks unfolding is literally a nightmare for me," he said. "And if France is out of Europe, Europe is at full stop. Everything I can do to make this not happen, I'm going to be doing."

France's presidential election is shaping up to be a showdown between Mr. Macron, a former investment banker with Rothschild & Cie Banque and economy minister in the government of François Hollande, and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the nationalist National Front.

Mr. Macron is committed to the EU. His program includes maintaining open borders but increasing police presence, raising take-home pay by reducing payroll taxes and combining France's various pension systems. He has called French colonialism a "crime against humanity."

Ms. Le Pen, a populist who grew up in a political family, wants to curb immigration, ditch the euro and hold a referendum on European Union membership. She has said that France needs to "retrieve its borders and stop immigration because the French can't take it any more."

"I couldn't bear to wake up on the day after the second round and say 'This happened and you did nothing about it,'" Mr. Lescure said in imagining a Le Pen victory. "I want to do what I can."

For now, it's unclear exactly what that is. Although Mr. Lescure has met Mr. Macron, he said he has no formal role yet in his campaign. He said he's spent several weeks meeting with like-minded members of Mr. Macron's En Marche party in Montreal and will work with them.

Mr. Lescure noted that the French election could turn, as it did in the United States, on whether people show up to vote. So his efforts could be directed at convincing the 1.3 million French expatriates, including some 60,000 living in Montreal, to vote.

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"It's just about trying to help and hopefully making a bit of a difference in my own modest [way]," he said.

Mr. Lescure has taken Quebec's establishment by surprise with his move. Recruited by Caisse chief executive Michael Sabia in 2009, he helped put Canada's second-biggest pension fund manager back on course after a record $40-billion loss by expanding international investments and increasing exposure to infrastructure and real estate in a bid to diversify and generate more stable returns. He describes it as "a fundamental change of culture" that prioritizes a long-term view.

A hunt for his successor is under way.

"Roland's intellect and creativity have helped shape so many of the strategies we have pursued at la Caisse," Mr. Sabia said in a statement. He said Mr. Lescure's commitment to public life is admirable and should serve as inspiration.

Mr. Lescure joins several other business leaders lured to political life in recent years. They include federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao and Quebecor chief executive Pierre Karl Péladeau, who has now returned to Quebecor after a stint as leader of the Parti Québécois.

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