Can A French Shipping Giant Make Marseille The Capital


The tower dominates the skyline. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, hulking over the Port of Marseille, and rising above a mass of clay-tiled roofs and blocks of drab housing projects, the sleek glass skyscraper is a beacon of wealth and prestige, standing out from the rest of this working-class city.

This is the headquarters of CMA CGM, the world’s third-largest container shipping company—and inside, times have never been so good. Although it’s still little-known outside France, the privately held, family-owned firm now rakes in nearly as much annual revenue as HP, Boeing, or Morgan Stanley. The Marseille-based giant earned a staggering $17.9 billion in profit in 2021, with 2022 on pace to be another record year, even as the wider industry cools down. These once unthinkable gains have padded the pockets of the company’s French Lebanese chairman and CEO, Rodolphe Saadé, transforming his family into the fifth wealthiest in France as it sits atop one of the country’s few corporate giants to be headquartered outside the Paris region.

In an industry that has caused headaches for consumers, drawn renewed scrutiny from regulators, and remains somewhat clouded in mystery, the Saadés are the indisputable winners. And they aren’t content to merely sit on top of their gains. Rodolphe Saadé has dug into the fresh earnings to grow the family business—expanding the firm’s logistics empire, extending its influence, and bolstering its ties with a French government increasingly aware of the strategic benefits of having a major global shipping firm based on domestic shores. At a time of renewed global crises and heightened instability, CMA CGM offers the promise of reliable shipping to France and its sprawling collection of overseas territories—topped off by a certain willingness to make investments that align with French state interests.

The shipping sector may be cyclical, but the power and influence of the Saadés are almost certainly here to stay.

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Source: Foreign Policy


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