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POLITICO Playbook: McConnell: Quit the charade, impeachment is a 'political exercise' – POLITICO

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DRIVING THE DAY

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL on “Fox and Friends” this morning: “Do you think Chuck Schumer is impartial? Do you think Elizabeth Warren is impartial? Bernie Sanders is impartial? So let’s quit the charade. This is a political exercise. … All I’m asking of Schumer is that we treat Trump the same way we treated Clinton.

“We had a procedure that was approved 100 to nothing — Schumer voted for it, to go through the opening arguments, to have a written question period, and then, based upon that, deciding what witnesses to call. We haven’t ruled out witnesses. We’ve said let’s handle this case just like we did with President Clinton. Fair is fair.”

MCCONNELL was asked if he had spoken to Schumer: “Yeah, before we left town. Look, we’re at an impasse. We can’t do anything until the speaker sends the papers over, so everybody enjoy the holidays.”

“THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, if they think this is a very significant episode, can take it into account we’re voting [next] year. Most people that I run into, whether they are fans of the president or not, say, ‘Well, why don’t you just let us decide this. We’re in the middle of the election.’”

SWING STATE READ … FRONT PAGE of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, banner headline: “‘Nakedly partisan … disrespectful’: Impeachment of Trump echoes that of Clinton”

THE NEXT BIG OBJECT OF FASCINATION among President DONALD TRUMP’S allies is U.S. Attorney John Durham’s report on his investigation into the origins of the Russia probe — and, more specifically, the intelligence community’s role in it.

WE KNOW REMARKABLY LITTLE about Durham and what he’s up to. POLITICO and others have reported that he’s focusing on former top intel leaders like CIA chief JOHN BRENNAN, but not much else. What we do know is that the president personally and his allies have said — over and over — that they are putting a lot of stock into Durham, which makes him a central figure of the moment.

— KNOWING DURHAM … NYT, A1: “Durham Surprises Even Allies With Statement on F.B.I.’s Trump Case,” by Elizabeth Williamson: “Mr. Durham is known in New England’s close-knit law enforcement community for working long days on his own cases, and providing sought-after guidance on others’.

“Wearing gunmetal-frame glasses and a drooping goatee, he rises early and dresses in the dark, often mismatching his suit jackets and pants. His reputation for discretion, on top of a long record of successful high-profile prosecutions, are among the reasons he has been a go-to person when Washington — under Republicans and Democrats alike — needs someone to handle sensitive tasks. …

“‘He believes in four things: his family, his profession, his religion and the Boston Red Sox,’ said Hugh F. Keefe, a Connecticut defense lawyer who says Mr. Durham is so by the book, he once asked Mr. Keefe whether he had reported a free Red Sox ticket to the I.R.S. ‘If anyone thinks they can lead him like a horse to water, they’re mistaken.’”

THE EVANGELICAL VOTE … SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL FRONT PAGE: “President Donald Trump to rally evangelical voters in Miami,” by Skyler Swisher: “President Donald Trump is going to rally his religious supporters in Miami, a move that comes after an evangelical Christian magazine called for him to be removed from office. Trump is rolling out an ‘Evangelicals for Trump’ coalition on Jan. 3 in Miami, according to his campaign.” Front page

“At one evangelical church, congregants dismiss the Christianity Today editorial — if they’ve read it at all,” by WaPo’s Amy Wang in Brookfield, Wis.

BREAKING IN THE KINGDOM … AP/RIYADH: “Saudi sentences 5 to death for Jamal Khashoggi’s killing,” by Abdullah Al-Shihri and Aya Batrawy: “Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death on Monday for the killing of Washington Post columnist and royal family critic Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year by a team of Saudi agents.

“The killing of Khashoggi stunned the international community and also many Saudi citizens, who were deeply shocked that a Saudi national could be killed by 15 government agents inside one of the kingdom’s consulates.

“Another three people were sentenced to prison for a combined 24 years, according to a statement read by the attorney general’s office on Saudi state TV. No individual breakdown for the sentencing was given.”

Good Monday morning. WELCOME TO CHRISTMAS WEEK! Hanukkah started Sunday night. Playbook will still be in your inbox as usual, but just a bit later this week and next. Playbook PM and the Audio Briefing are on hiatus.

MARKET WATCH — “How the economy could make or break Trump in 2020,” by Ben White: “Most of the economic gifts President Donald Trump is going to get for 2020 are already unwrapped and out from under the tree. The Federal Reserve slashed rates and went dark. The phase one China deal is pretty much done. So is the new NAFTA.

“That leaves one big question for a recently impeached president as he heads for a dicey reelection bid: What’s left to goose markets and the economy beyond what most expect will be a pretty blah 2020?

“Even blah — a 2 percent-or-so growth rate with unemployment still near or below 4 percent — could be enough to help Trump overcome a low approval rating and win again. But if he really hopes to romp over the eventual Democratic nominee, he’ll probably need markets to keep popping and growth to bubble higher, especially in the industrial Midwest. And it is far from obvious how the United States can get there from here.” POLITICO

TRADE WARS … WSJ/BEIJING: “China to Cut Tariffs on Range of Goods Amid Push for Trade Deal”: “China will cut import tariffs for frozen pork, pharmaceuticals and some high-tech components starting from Jan. 1, a move that comes as Beijing and Washington are trying to complete a phase-one trade deal.

“The plan, approved by China’s cabinet, will lower tariffs for all trading partners on 859 types of products to below the rates that most-favored nations enjoy, the Finance Ministry said Monday. Most-favored-nation rates are the lowest possible tariffs a country offers to its trading partners.

“The lower levies will apply to frozen pork, as China aims to shore up its meat supplies amid an outbreak of swine fever, as well as semiconductor products and medicines to treat asthma and diabetes. Tariffs on some of the products will go to zero.

“The plan will also cut import levies for more than 8,000 products even lower for 23 countries and regions that have free-trade agreements with China, including Australia, South Korea, Iceland, New Zealand and Pakistan, from the beginning of next year. The statement said China would further cut tariffs on some information-technology products and services from July 1, 2020.”

WE’RE STILL AT WAR … AP/KABUL: “U.S. soldier is killed in Afghanistan; Taliban claim attack”

2020 WATCH …

— “Trump campaign plagued by groups raising tens of millions in his name,” by Maggie Severns: “As President Donald Trump raises money for his reelection campaign, he’s competing for cash with a growing mass of pro-Trump PACs, dark money groups and off-brand Facebook advertisers neither affiliated with nor endorsed by Trump’s campaign, which have pulled in over $46 million so far.

“The groups mimic Trump’s brand in the way they look and feel. They borrow the president’s Twitter avatar on Facebook pages, use clips of Trump’s voice in robocalls asking for ‘an emergency contribution to the campaign’ and, in some cases, have been affiliated with former Trump aides, such as onetime deputy campaign manager David Bossie. But most are spending little money to help the president win in 2020, POLITICO found.

“The unofficial pro-Trump boosters number in the hundreds and are alarming the actual operatives charged with reelecting the president: They suck up money that Trump aides think should be going to the campaign or the Republican National Committee, and they muddy the Trump campaign’s message and make it harder to accumulate new donors, Trump allies say.” POLITICO

— DES MOINES REGISTER FRONT PAGE: “Warren shakes up campaign style in Iowa”

— BOSTON GLOBE: “Elizabeth Warren’s brothers are a silent fixture of her campaign,” by Jess Bidgood in Newcastle, Okla.: “It feels as far away as possible from the chaos and choreography of a presidential campaign: a little red house in a neighborhood surrounded by fields, where almost nothing breaks the straight line of the horizon.

“But the man who lives here, a decorated Air Force veteran who the neighbors don’t see very often, has a crucial role to play in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. So do his two brothers, who live their own quiet lives in Oklahoma City and nearby Norman.

“The men are Warren’s older brothers — Don Reed Herring, John Herring, and David Herring — and, at nearly every campaign stop, she introduces herself to voters by talking about them, weaving folksy family stories with details about their military service, conservative politics, and agreement around her big ideas. Over the past year, they have become a fixture of her pitch, a living link to her upbringing in a financially strained world she says is an indelible part of who she is.

“They also do more: They are a key part of her effort to show she can find common ground with Republicans, offering them as a rejoinder to questions about her electability.” Boston GlobeA1 PDF

— ELENA SCHNEIDER with this AMAZING DETAIL: “How Buttigieg’s childhood pal ended up managing 2020’s breakout campaign”: “Before the Democratic presidential debate in Columbus, Ohio, Mike Schmuhl ventured into the city to get his mop of red hair cut. It wasn’t so much that Schmuhl himself needed a trim — but Pete Buttigieg’s campaign manager wanted to make sure the barbershop was up to the task of a presidential shave.

“Thirty minutes later, after the Royal Rhino Club Barbershop and Lounge passed muster and Schmuhl made an appointment under the name ‘Max Harris,’ another aide who got his hair trimmed, Buttigieg himself appeared for a fresh pre-debate cut.”

— THE HOLLYWOOD VOTE: “Actor Kevin Costner returns to Iowa to support Buttigieg,” by AP’s Thomas Beaumont in Indianola, Iowa

TRUMP’S MONDAY … THE PRESIDENT is in Florida and has nothing on his schedule.

— MERIDITH MCGRAW in West Palm Beach, Fla.: “Escape to Mar-a-Lago: Trump gets a post-impeachment mood lift”: “Friends of the president noted just how content he seemed in the glamorous getaway town of Palm Beach he now calls home, away from it all and back at his Mar-a-Lago resort — what’s described to be like a personal ‘Cheers bar,’ where Trump knows everybody’s name.

“‘He’s very happy to be back at what he calls the winter White House and is happy to take a break from the cold and craziness of his job,’ said George Guido Lombardi, a Mar-a-Lago member and longtime Trump friend. ‘It’s the only time that he’s got to be his real self and let down.’

“For aides, Mar-a-Lago can sometimes be a headache, as there is less control over who gets face time with the president and who might be able to whisper an idea in his ear. But that’s the way Trump likes to be, unfettered and able to do what he loves best — playing host, golfing with friends, watching television and working away from the confines of the West Wing.” POLITICO

PLAYBOOK READS

DAILY RUDY — “Giuliani pals leveraged GOP access to seek Ukraine gas deal,” by AP’s Desmond Butler and MIchael Biesecker in Kyiv, Ukraine: “The Associated Press reported some details in October of the brash pitch that [Lev] Parnas and [Igor] Fruman made to [Andrew] Favorov in Houston. But in a recent series of interviews with the AP in Kyiv, Favorov painted a more complete picture of his dealings with Giuliani’s associates.

“His tale, corroborated by interviews with other key witnesses, reveals that the pair continued to pursue a deal for months. The campaign culminated in May, at a meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington that included a lobbyist with deep ties to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and a Republican fundraiser from Texas close to Donald Trump Jr. Three people with direct knowledge of that meeting described it to the AP on condition of anonymity because some of the players are under federal investigation.

“The maneuvering over Naftogaz came at the same time that Giuliani, with the help of Parnas and Fruman, were trying to get Yovanovitch out of the way and persuade Ukraine’s leaders to launch an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s work with Burisma, a rival Ukrainian gas company.” AP

— NBC’S JOSH LEDERMAN: “Inside Giuliani’s new push to flip the script on Trump’s impeachment”

TOP-ED — SEN. PAT LEAHY (D-Vt.) in the NYT: “What the Senate Does Now Will Cast a Long Shadow”: “When the Senate ultimately convenes to consider whether to remove the president from office, for just the third time in its history, it will convene not as a legislative body, but as a court of impeachment. And it will not just be President Trump on trial. The Senate — and indeed, truth itself — will stand trial.”

FED WATCH — “Fed Confronts Lack of Diversity in Its Ranks,” by WSJ’s Nick Timiraos: “The economics profession embarked this year on a soul-searching appraisal of perceived hostility to women and minorities in its ranks, and the Federal Reserve—the nation’s largest employer of Ph.D. economists—wants to get ahead of the curve.

“For the Fed, where three quarters of its research economists are men and most are white, facing up to the lack of women and minorities among these employees isn’t just a matter of appearances. A staff that better reflects the U.S. population could limit the potential for groupthink or blind spots that hinder the central bank’s assessment of how the economy is changing. …

“Current and former staffers and private economists who interact with the central bank say the Fed’s attention to diversity issues gained new urgency under former Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen and has continued under her successor, Jerome Powell. The shift has coincided with veteran female staffers earning promotions to three of the central bank’s most important management positions this year.” WSJ

BEYOND THE BELTWAY — “Fur is under attack. It’s not going down without a fight,” by WaPo’s Robin Givhan

ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION FRONT PAGE: “Loeffler reaches out to skeptical Georgia GOP activists,” by Greg Bluestein: “As Kelly Loeffler prepares to be sworn in as Georgia’s next U.S. senator, many of the grassroots activists who form the backbone of the state’s Republican Party remain reluctant to give her a full-fledged endorsement.

“An Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey of dozens of local party officials and county GOP chairmen showed many are taking a wait-and-see approach to Loeffler, a financial executive Gov. Brian Kemp selected for the job who is largely unknown to even many top Republicans.

“Their hesitance will play a major factor as the political newcomer faces a steep task. Her new role will require her to almost instantly take part in impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump, even as she tries to establish her political brand and fend off conservative challengers.” AJCFront page

MEDIAWATCH — “Devin Nunes, Johnny Depp lawsuits seen as threats to free speech and press,” by WaPo’s Justin Jouvenal: “The suits are part of a string of splashy defamation claims by politicians and the A-list star seeking nearly $1 billion in damages in Virginia courts this year, even though many of the cases have only loose connections to the state.

“The plaintiffs argue their names have been smeared and the venues are appropriate, but several of the defendants — including Twitter and Heard — say the filing location is aimed at exploiting the state’s weak protections for defamation defendants. Some legal experts say Virginia law allows those with deep pockets to bulldoze targets with frivolous, protracted and expensive litigation they couldn’t pursue in many other states.

“The true goals of the suits, the defendants argue, are to stifle critics, blunt aggressive journalism and settle scores. Some deride the legal maneuvers as ‘libel tourism’ and see a growing trend not just in Virginia but in other states that similarly lack safeguards. The suits have prompted Virginia lawmakers to look at changing the law.” WaPo

PLAYBOOKERS

Send tips to Eli Okun and Garrett Ross at politicoplaybook@politico.com.

ENGAGED — Jacques Petit, regional press secretary at Giffords, got engaged to Alyssa Harris, a contractor at the Department of Energy. Pic

BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: Steve Thomma, executive director of the White House Correspondents Association. An interesting book he’s been reading: ‘American Caesar.’ It was a gift from David Bradley of Atlantic Media after a conversation about our mutual admiration for the reporting and writing of the late William Manchester. It’s a terrific book, deeply reported, and a reminder to this addict of presidential bios that there really are other lions of American life even if they didn’t make it to the White House.” Playbook Q&A

BIRTHDAYS: Bill Kristol … Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) is 67 … Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) is 69 … retired Gen. Wes Clark is 75 … Fox News’ Shannon Bream … Lucinda Guinn, executive director of the DCCC (h/t Cole Leiter) … Michawn Rich, USDA communications director (h/t Alec Varsamis) … Chris Peacock of Stanford University communications is 59 (h/t David Jackson) … POLITICO’s Julia Franklin … Alyssa DiBlasi … Steve Hills is 61 … Dentons’ John Russell IV … Axios’ Claire Kennedy … Julio Negron … Adam Milakofsky … Meghan Stabler … Patrick Burgwinkle … Kelley Moore, communications director for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) … Lauren Kahn …

… Fatima Noor … Jared Gilmour … Dan Shott is 33 … Tom Epstein (h/t Jon Haber) … Lewis A. Kaplan … Melissa Ann Merz … Abe Sutton … Josh Satin … Bill Goodson … Natasha Dabrowski … Trump White House alum Zina Bash … Texas A.G. Ken Paxton is 57 … Louisiana A.G. Jeff Landry is 49 … Brittany Bolen … Google’s Patrick D. Smith … Audrey Kubetin … James Miller … Joe Boswell … Jonathan Zucker is 48 … Hilary Novik Sandberg is 31 … Emil Pitkin, CEO of GovPredict … Elizabeth Bingold … Karen Roberts … Brennan Foley … Deloitte’s Rasheq Zarif … Allison Dobson … Rich Tarplin … Carter Snead … Kevin Hayes … Roy Behr … Doug Vilsack … Mark Clesh

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Politics Crashes a $20 Billion Canadian Shopping Trip to Paris – BNN

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(Bloomberg) — Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. founder Alain Bouchard hoped to salvage a $20 billion offer for Carrefour SA when he arrived at the French Finance Ministry, whose headquarters juts out over the Seine like a beached aircraft carrier in eastern Paris.

After being kept waiting for a brief audience with Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, Bouchard got the message: The proposed deal was dead on arrival, torpedoed by French political opposition.

The meeting Friday capped a tumultuous week for Couche-Tard and Carrefour. Bouchard, a self-made billionaire who had transformed an obscure Canadian gas-station operator into an empire of 14,200 retail sites through acquisitions, wanted to take the next step. Buying the French grocer would have turned Couche-Tard into a global retail giant, alongside the likes of Walmart Inc.

However, the overture ended only four days after it came to light, and the companies said they’ll seek a looser alliance instead. Ceding one of France’s biggest supermarket owners to foreign ownership was impossible at a time when Covid-19 lockdowns underlined the strategic importance of the country’s food supply, Le Maire said.

Couche-Tard is not the first foreign acquirer to be stymied by French concerns about economic sovereignty, but it underestimated flag-waving reflexes that have sharpened amid Covid-19. With regional elections looming later this year and a presidential vote set for 2022, allowing the country’s biggest private employer to fall into foreign hands could have given nationalist leader Marine Le Pen and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon a new cause celebre to attack centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

Bad Timing

“It wasn’t the moment to do a deal like that,” said Fabienne Caron, an analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux. “The government had much more to lose than to win. The real reason is politics.”

The companies compounded their miscalculation by blindsiding Le Maire and Macron. The finance minister found out about the talks late Tuesday via a text message from Carrefour Chief Executive Officer Alexandre Bompard, according to a Finance Ministry official who asked not to be named, citing government rules. It came around the time a Bloomberg News report revealed the talks that evening.

This article is based on interviews with people familiar with the discussions and the government’s position, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. Representatives for Carrefour and Couche-Tard declined to comment.

Talks between the two companies began in the autumn, after Couche-Tard failed in an effort to buy Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s Speedway gas station network. Previous acquisitions had built up Couche-Tard from a single store in a Montreal suburb into an operator of convenience outlets spanning from Texas to Hong Kong.

Carrefour, best-known for giant, out-of-town stores that sell everything from baguettes to T-shirts to grass seed, has been challenged by the rise of online shopping and the growth of discounters Lidl and Aldi. Under Bompard, it has scaled back its hypermarkets while investing in convenience stores, e-commerce and organic food, but the shares had fallen by more than one-third over his 3 1/2-year tenure before Tuesday’s news broke.

Friendly Talks

Later that evening after the leak, both companies confirmed the discussions, emphasizing that the negotiations were friendly. The next day, Carrefour’s stock surged, with Couche-Tard confirming it was weighing a price of 20 euros per share.

In government quarters, however, opposition was welling up. On Wednesday afternoon, Le Maire spoke with Bompard as well as key Carrefour investors such as LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault, who holds a 5.5% stake. Late in the day, the finance minister went on television to say he opposed the deal.

A representative for Arnault did not respond to a request for comment.

Carrefour’s advisers and some analysts saw an element of posturing in Le Maire’s hard line, figuring the finance minister would eventually yield. They had reason to believe that this deal might be seen differently from a 2005 approach by PepsiCo Inc. to French yogurt maker Danone SA, which was blocked on grounds of sovereignty.

After all, Macron is a former Rothschild banker who entered office four years ago with a vow to shake up a French economy held back by state interventionism. Couche-Tard hails from Quebec, which shares close linguistic, cultural and business ties. And Carrefour could use a deep-pocketed partner to finance its incomplete turnaround.

In 2019, France led European countries in a ranking of foreign investment projects by accounting firm EY. Its companies have also stepped up overseas expansion, with LVMH recently completing its $16 billion purchase of Tiffany & Co. Some French champions have stumbled of late, however — notably drugmaker Sanofi, whose Covid vaccine project faces a months-long delay after a dosing problem during tests.

Couche-Tard was ready to respond to French concerns with commitments to pump 3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) into Carrefour while guaranteeing jobs and pledging to maintain the retailer’s headquarters in France, as well as listing the combined companies’ shares in both countries.

‘Major Difficulty’

Le Maire appeared to open the door slightly at a conference Thursday when he described Carrefour being acquired by a foreign entity as a “major difficulty.” By Friday morning, he attempted to clear up any ambiguity, declaring in a morning TV appearance that his position on the Couche-Tard approach was a “clear and definitive no.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the strident French reaction left little room or time for behind-the-scenes lobbying. The effort was led by Quebec, which deepened its economic ties with France last year, when Bombardier Inc. agreed to sell its rail unit to Alstom SA. The province also owns 25% of the A220, the former Bombardier jet project now controlled by Airbus SE, headquartered in Toulouse, France. That’s a relationship the French-speaking province expected to go both ways.Quebec Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon first reached out for information to Roland Lescure, a former top official at Quebec’s pension fund who, in his current job as head of the French National Assembly’s economic affairs committee, has regular contacts with Macron’s and Le Maire’s teams. Fitzgibbon also spoke to Bouchard on Thursday evening before the Couche-Tard chairman flew to France, and was about to go on a call with Le Maire when he briefed journalists on Friday morning, Canadian time.The economy minister said he understood concerns about food security, a recurring topic at home, too. In speaking with Le Maire, he intended to promote Couche-Tard’s track record, and to tout the links between France and Quebec, he said. He struck a hopeful tone.“The dust has to settle a bit,” Fitzgibbon said. “Nothing’s going to get decided in the next 24 hours.”

He was proven wrong a few hours later.

Ministry Visit

Bouchard’s visit to the French Finance Ministry was the second of the day by Couche-Tard officials, some of whom had spent part of the week in Paris. Earlier Friday, CEO Brian Hannasch met with Le Maire’s chief of staff, Bertrand Dumont.

Between both meetings, the Canadians huddled with their bankers and advisers at Rothschild & Co.’s headquarters on Paris’s elegant Avenue de Messine. Bouchard and Bompard strategized that day, working on the best arguments to win over the government, a person familiar with the men’s day said.

Their efforts were fruitless, as the finance minister made it clear in the hastily arranged meeting that his opposition was unconditional.

With any hope for a deal dashed, Couche-Tard and Carrefour say they’re focusing on the proposed alliance. The companies will consider how to work together on fuel purchases, branding and distribution where their networks overlap.

Meanwhile, however, the Canadians had to return home empty-handed.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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Politics Crashes a $20 Billion Canadian Shopping Trip to Paris – Bloomberg

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Carrefour SA Hypermarket as Couche-Tard Said to Plan $3.6 Billion Investment

Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. founder Alain Bouchard hoped to salvage a $20 billion offer for Carrefour SA when he arrived at the French Finance Ministry, whose headquarters juts out over the Seine like a beached aircraft carrier in eastern Paris.

After being kept waiting for a brief audience with Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, Bouchard got the message: The proposed deal was dead on arrival, torpedoed by French political opposition.

The meeting Friday capped a tumultuous week for Couche-Tard and Carrefour. Bouchard, a self-made billionaire who had transformed an obscure Canadian gas-station operator into an empire of 14,200 retail sites through acquisitions, wanted to take the next step. Buying the French grocer would have turned Couche-Tard into a global retail giant, alongside the likes of Walmart Inc.

However, the overture ended only four days after it came to light, and the companies said they’ll seek a looser alliance instead. Ceding one of France’s biggest supermarket owners to foreign ownership was impossible at a time when Covid-19 lockdowns underlined the strategic importance of the country’s food supply, Le Maire said.

Couche-Tard is not the first foreign acquirer to be stymied by French concerns about economic sovereignty, but it underestimated flag-waving reflexes that have sharpened amid Covid-19. With regional elections looming later this year and a presidential vote set for 2022, allowing the country’s biggest private employer to fall into foreign hands could have given nationalist leader Marine Le Pen and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon a new cause celebre to attack centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

Bad Timing

“It wasn’t the moment to do a deal like that,” said Fabienne Caron, an analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux. “The government had much more to lose than to win. The real reason is politics.”

The companies compounded their miscalculation by blindsiding Le Maire and Macron. The finance minister found out about the talks late Tuesday via a text message from Carrefour Chief Executive Officer Alexandre Bompard, according to a Finance Ministry official who asked not to be named, citing government rules. It came around the time a Bloomberg News report revealed the talks that evening.

This article is based on interviews with people familiar with the discussions and the government’s position, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. Representatives for Carrefour and Couche-Tard declined to comment.

Talks between the two companies began in the autumn, after Couche-Tard failed in an effort to buy Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s Speedway gas station network. Previous acquisitions had built up Couche-Tard from a single store in a Montreal suburb into an operator of convenience outlets spanning from Texas to Hong Kong.

Carrefour, best-known for giant, out-of-town stores that sell everything from baguettes to T-shirts to grass seed, has been challenged by the rise of online shopping and the growth of discounters Lidl and Aldi. Under Bompard, it has scaled back its hypermarkets while investing in convenience stores, e-commerce and organic food, but the shares had fallen by more than one-third over his 3 1/2-year tenure before Tuesday’s news broke.

Friendly Talks

Later that evening after the leak, both companies confirmed the discussions, emphasizing that the negotiations were friendly. The next day, Carrefour’s stock surged, with Couche-Tard confirming it was weighing a price of 20 euros per share.

In government quarters, however, opposition was welling up. On Wednesday afternoon, Le Maire spoke with Bompard as well as key Carrefour investors such as LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault, who holds a 5.5% stake. Late in the day, the finance minister went on television to say he opposed the deal.

A representative for Arnault did not respond to a request for comment.

Carrefour’s advisers and some analysts saw an element of posturing in Le Maire’s hard line, figuring the finance minister would eventually yield. They had reason to believe that this deal might be seen differently from a 2005 approach by PepsiCo Inc. to French yogurt maker Danone SA, which was blocked on grounds of sovereignty.

After all, Macron is a former Rothschild banker who entered office four years ago with a vow to shake up a French economy held back by state interventionism. Couche-Tard hails from Quebec, which shares close linguistic, cultural and business ties. And Carrefour could use a deep-pocketed partner to finance its incomplete turnaround.

In 2019, France led European countries in a ranking of foreign investment projects by accounting firm EY. Its companies have also stepped up overseas expansion, with LVMH recently completing its $16 billion purchase of Tiffany & Co. Some French champions have stumbled of late, however — notably drugmaker Sanofi, whose Covid vaccine project faces a months-long delay after a dosing problem during tests.

Couche-Tard was ready to respond to French concerns with commitments to pump 3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) into Carrefour while guaranteeing jobs and pledging to maintain the retailer’s headquarters in France, as well as listing the combined companies’ shares in both countries.

‘Major Difficulty’

Le Maire appeared to open the door slightly at a conference Thursday when he described Carrefour being acquired by a foreign entity as a “major difficulty.” By Friday morning, he attempted to clear up any ambiguity, declaring in a morning TV appearance that his position on the Couche-Tard approach was a “clear and definitive no.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the strident French reaction left little room or time for behind-the-scenes lobbying. The effort was led by Quebec, which deepened its economic ties with France last year, when Bombardier Inc. agreed to sell its rail unit to Alstom SA. The province also owns 25% of the A220, the former Bombardier jet project now controlled by Airbus SE, headquartered in Toulouse, France. That’s a relationship the French-speaking province expected to go both ways.

Quebec Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon first reached out for information to Roland Lescure, a former top official at Quebec’s pension fund who, in his current job as head of the French National Assembly’s economic affairs committee, has regular contacts with Macron’s and Le Maire’s teams. Fitzgibbon also spoke to Bouchard on Thursday evening before the Couche-Tard chairman flew to France, and was about to go on a call with Le Maire when he briefed journalists on Friday morning, Canadian time.

The economy minister said he understood concerns about food security, a recurring topic at home, too. In speaking with Le Maire, he intended to promote Couche-Tard’s track record, and to tout the links between France and Quebec, he said. He struck a hopeful tone.

“The dust has to settle a bit,” Fitzgibbon said. “Nothing’s going to get decided in the next 24 hours.”

He was proven wrong a few hours later.

Ministry Visit

Bouchard’s visit to the French Finance Ministry was the second of the day by Couche-Tard officials, some of whom had spent part of the week in Paris. Earlier Friday, CEO Brian Hannasch met with Le Maire’s chief of staff, Bertrand Dumont.

Between both meetings, the Canadians huddled with their bankers and advisers at Rothschild & Co.’s headquarters on Paris’s elegant Avenue de Messine. Bouchard and Bompard strategized that day, working on the best arguments to win over the government, a person familiar with the men’s day said.

Their efforts were fruitless, as the finance minister made it clear in the hastily arranged meeting that his opposition was unconditional.

With any hope for a deal dashed, Couche-Tard and Carrefour say they’re focusing on the proposed alliance. The companies will consider how to work together on fuel purchases, branding and distribution where their networks overlap.

Meanwhile, however, the Canadians had to return home empty-handed.

— With assistance by Manuel Baigorri

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    Biden’s long political evolution leads to his biggest test – 95.7 News

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    WILMINGTON, Del. — Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has navigated a half-century in American politics by relentlessly positioning himself at the core of the Democratic Party.

    Wherever that power centre shifted, there Biden has been, whether as the young senator who opposed court-order busing in school integration cases or the soon-to-be 46th president pitching an agenda on par with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

    The common thread through that evolution is Biden always pitching himself as an institutionalist — a mainstream liberal but also a pragmatist who still insists that governing well depends on compromise and consensus.

    Now Biden’s central political identity faces the ultimate trial.

    On Wednesday, the 78-year-old president-elect will inherit stewardship of a nation wrenched by pandemic, seismic cultural fissures and an opposition party’s base that considers him illegitimate, even to the point of President Donald Trump’s supporters violently attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress convened to certify Biden’s victory.

    Biden’s answer follows two tracks: defending the fabric of society and institutions of government that Trump’s tenure has stressed and calling for sweeping legislative action. His agenda includes an initial $1.9 trillion pandemic response, along with proposed overhauls for health care, taxation, infrastructure, education, criminal justice, the energy grid and climate policy.

    “A message of unity. A message of getting things done,” Ron Klain, his incoming White House chief of staff, explained Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

    The first approach, rooted in Biden’s campaign pledge to “restore the soul of the nation,” netted a record 81 million votes in the election. In his Nov. 7 victory speech, Biden called that coalition “the broadest and most diverse in history” and framed it as evidence Americans are ready to “lower the temperature” and “heal.”

    Biden’s second, policy-based approach, however, still must confront a hyperpartisan age and a closely divided Congress.

    The outcome will determine the reach of Biden’s presidency and further test the lifetime politician’s ability to evolve and meet events.

    “We can’t have a claim to want to heal the nation if what people mean is just having the right tone and being able to pat one another on the back,” said the Rev. William Barber, a leading social justice advocate who has personally pushed Biden to prioritize the marginalized and poor of all races.

    “Real healing of the nation,” Barber said, “must be dealing with the sickness in the body of the nation caused by policy, by racism, by polity.”

    Activists such as Barber represent just one of many flanks surrounding Biden.

    Republicans are clear they won’t passively ratify Biden’s responses to the pandemic or deep-seated problems that came before it: institutional racism, widening wealth gaps, the climate crisis. The Democratic Party isn’t marching in lockstep, either, as progressives, liberals and moderates dicker over details.

    “I wouldn’t expect big, sweeping change,” said Michael Steel, once a top aide to former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

    Democrats will control a 50-50 Senate with Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote as presiding officer. But the chamber’s 60-vote filibuster threshold for major legislation remains. Biden’s longtime friend, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, is the House speaker, but presides over a diminished Democratic majority and slim margin for error.

    Harris framed the stakes Sunday, telling “CBS Sunday Morning” that the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 “was an exposure of the vulnerability of our democracy.”

    John Anzalone, Biden’s campaign pollster, noted in a recent interview that Biden won with a message spanning ideology. Some voters “may not believe in his politics. But they believe in him,” Anzalone said. “They believe in his compassion and they believe in, quite frankly, his leadership skills.”

    Anzalone loosely compared Biden’s appeal to Ronald Reagan’s. Reagan was a hero of movement conservatives yet drew support from a wide swath of “Reagan Democrats” to win the presidency in 1980 amid economic and international instability. By extension, Reagan could count on support or at least good faith from many Democrats on Capitol Hill, most notably then-Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass.

    “The analogy sort of fails when you ask who are the Tip O’Neills for Republicans at this point?” Anzalone acknowledged. But, he said, Biden “is not averse to big fights.”

    Biden projects confidence regardless, in part, those close to him say, because of his long tenure in Washington buttressed now with the presidential megaphone.

    “Part of the president’s job is making the case to the American people and persuading them what the right way forward is,” said Stef Feldman, policy director for Biden’s campaign.

    Through that lens, it becomes less surprising to see the politician who joined Republicans in the mid-1990s to clamour for a balanced budget now declares emergency spending measured by the trillions “more urgent than ever,” even “including deficit spending.”

    It was a similar course for Biden as he aged from a young senator in a chamber still stocked with old-guard segregationists into the trusted lieutenant for the nation’s first Black president. The Senate Judiciary Chairman who in 1991 led an all-male panel in Supreme Court confirmation hearings involving sexual harassment claims turned the widely panned experience into invitations for the committee to seat its first Democratic female members.

    The Catholic politician who for decades acknowledged his struggle over abortion policy flouted church teachings as vice-president by announcing his support for same-sex marriage before most other elected Democrats, including the ostensibly more socially progressive Obama. And during the 2020 campaign, even as Biden started to the left of Obama and 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton, he inched further leftward on health care, college tuition aid and climate policy.

    While Biden aides argue his shifts don’t involve changes in principle or fundamental values, some other observers say the point is moot. The question, said Maurice Mitchell, who leads the progressive Working Families Party, is simply whether Biden will continue to evolve and leverage his political capital into both post-Trump stability and big policy wins.

    “We can’t control people’s convictions but we can shift the politics of the possible,” Mitchell said, noting that Johnson signed seminal civil rights laws less than a decade after quashing such measures as Senate majority leader.

    Barber, the minister, pointed to other historical figures whom Biden sometimes mentioned while campaigning: Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Both, Barber noted, were savvy, even ruthless politicians who reached for their biggest achievements only after winning the nation’s highest office — and they did so against vicious opposition and during times of existential national threats.

    “There’s good record in our history that there are moments in this country can and has taken great steps forward,” Barber said. “And many times, it was right on the heels of great pain. The movement and the moment can cause leaders — presidents, senators, congresspeople — to be much greater than they even intended or imagined.”

    Bill Barrow, The Associated Press

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