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The other target of France’s protests: billionaires

Emmanuel Macron with Bernard Arnault, the wealthiest man in the world. Credit: Getty

April 4, 2023 - 2:30pm

Paris

Beyond the detested President Emmanuel Macron, those pilloried most during France’s ongoing social crisis are the country’s multi-billionaires. One can hear obscene chants directed at them throughout violent rallies which oppose raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, and it will be no different during an 11th day of action on Thursday. 

The richest man and woman on earth, as reported today in Forbes’s World’s Billionaires List, are now French — Bernard Arnault, boss of the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, and L’Oréal cosmetics heiress Françoise Bettencourt Meyers respectively.

Others who export high-end products around the world so prodigiously from Paris include media mogul Vincent Bolloré and François Pinault, founder of the Kering and Artémis groups. This infuriates protesters who are continually told that funding their own pension regimes is unsustainable.

“The tycoons all earn more in a second than the rest of us earn in a lifetime,” an electrician called Gilles, 34, told me as teargas swirled around us and shop windows were put in during rioting in Paris last week, on the 10th day of action. “Yet we’re the ones who are expected to work longer for less pay,” he added. “Like Macron, all are mainly interested in personal profits made internationally — their greed is tearing our country apart.”

Those cited as traitors are still working well past 64 and personify everything else that many French radicals detest about modern capitalism: 24/7 toiling, astronomically priced brands, and a global focus. It is all so different from the habitually parochial and generally very modest lifestyles favoured by the majority of French people — from those who vote for the far-Right Rassemblement National to supporters of the far-Left France Insoumise party formed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

“Many of Mr Arnault’s employees in France cannot afford to buy what they’re selling,” said Amar Lagha, of the CGT, or General Confederation of Labour, union, which has organised strikes at flagship LVMH stores during the current dispute. 

In this sense, the industrialists and Macron — a former merchant banker who made his millions long before he turned 40 — represent an increasingly compelling reason why so many have joined protests. The demonstrations are nominally against pension reform — and the fact that Macron forced legislation through without a parliamentary vote — but many also believe big business is an enemy of the entire postwar French social system.

It is one of the most generous in the world in a country where some 59% of GDP currently goes on government spending, compared to 48% in the UK, and 45% in America. Pensions account for 15% of the French figure, because reserves set up to fund them were largely wiped out by the cost of Nazi occupation, and then galloping inflation. The state now fills the deficit with the equivalent of some £26 billion a year in pay-as-you-earn taxes that stifle growth. Macron insists that the cost is unsustainable and threatens the entire economy, at a time when competition with far harder working industrial nations is intensifying.

Rather than dealing with the trade unionists in person this week, Macron is in Beijing visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping, all the while leaving French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne to pacify dissenters at home. A high-profile three days abroad is exactly the kind of presidential grandstanding that infuriates those taking to the streets of France. 

Detractors portray their head of state as representing the forces of “Anglo-Saxon” economic liberalism — the kind that negates union solidarity, long lunch breaks, the whole of August off, and, for the Gallic purists, a working week capped at 35 hours.

Macron is dubbed “President of the Rich” and, like so many of his predecessors, is seen to prioritise profiteering cronies over low-paid citizens. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy — still a close confidante to Macron, despite being convicted of corruption — chose Arnault as his best man when he married his third wife, former supermodel Carla Bruni, at the Elysée Palace, for example, while Bolloré is another close friend who still has a direct line to ministers.

The multi-billionaires are seen as accomplices to a political establishment that is self-serving and sleazy. Hating this pampered minority — and the threat they pose to traditional French lifestyles – thus becomes as powerful a motive for nationwide insurrection as specific policies imposed by lackey presidents.


Peter Allen is a journalist and author based in Paris.

peterallenparis

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Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

Expect to see more of this in the future everywhere in the western world. These types of protests will only become more frequent and probably more violent the more the global oligarchs resist populist reforms and try to dump the costs of policy onto the people.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I hope that’s true but, so far, in most of the world (France seems to be an exception) the oligarchs seem to be doing a good job of casting themselves as saviors of the world (think Gates and his foundation). I do not for a moment believe they are acting in anyone’s interests but their own, but they do seem to be playing an effective game of divide and rule.

Steve Jolly
SJ
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I’m not so sure about that. There were also the trucker protests in Canada. They were squished by Trudeau but the point is they happened. Then there were the farm protests in The Netherlands, and going back a bit farther the farmer protests in India a few years back. Then of course there’s Brexit, Trump, etc. The USA is a different animal entirely, as our federal system makes it possible for states to set their own policy on a lot of issues and push back against the national government in very significant ways, and they are, so a lot of what might be rioting and protesting in the US is masked by people moving from Democratic strongholds to Republican strongholds, and there’s an awful lot of that going on. Beneath the surface, very few long term trends are positive for the globalists.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I’m not so sure about that. There were also the trucker protests in Canada. They were squished by Trudeau but the point is they happened. Then there were the farm protests in The Netherlands, and going back a bit farther the farmer protests in India a few years back. Then of course there’s Brexit, Trump, etc. The USA is a different animal entirely, as our federal system makes it possible for states to set their own policy on a lot of issues and push back against the national government in very significant ways, and they are, so a lot of what might be rioting and protesting in the US is masked by people moving from Democratic strongholds to Republican strongholds, and there’s an awful lot of that going on. Beneath the surface, very few long term trends are positive for the globalists.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I hope that’s true but, so far, in most of the world (France seems to be an exception) the oligarchs seem to be doing a good job of casting themselves as saviors of the world (think Gates and his foundation). I do not for a moment believe they are acting in anyone’s interests but their own, but they do seem to be playing an effective game of divide and rule.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

Expect to see more of this in the future everywhere in the western world. These types of protests will only become more frequent and probably more violent the more the global oligarchs resist populist reforms and try to dump the costs of policy onto the people.

STEPHEN GILDERT
SG
STEPHEN GILDERT
1 year ago

It’s wonderful to see the French rioting in the pursuit of a more balanced life. Having worked in France I was envious of their whole approach to work and life, compared to your average crazy commute, 24/7, sandwich at the desk Brit. And their productivity continues to be higher than ours. Whether or not it’s affordable to retire at 62 it clearly matters deeply to the French who invariably see things differently to the Anglo Saxons. Perhaps their continued, compulsory study of Philosophy to 18 creates more genuine thinkers than we can manage.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

I’ve also worked in France and my experience was quite different. Productivity in professional and technical activities is certainly no higher than in the UK.
Doing business is far more difficult and bureaucratic. There’s far more “old boy network” stuff in France than the UK (hard to believe though that is, it is the case in my experience). And industrial relations are still in the 1970s.
The lifestyle is indeed attractive. But it’s the last place I’d want to hire someone or set up a business.
Whether it’s affordable to retire at 62 *doesn’t matter at all* to the French. This is the whole problem here ! They just think they have the right to anyway, regardless of the cost. Someone else will pay. Until they run out of other people’s money. Very soon now.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Productivity at a national level has little to do with the work ethic of the average worker. It’s improved by investment in new tools and technologies to make it easier to produce more goods per hour. A hard working carpenter will build a timber frame much more slowly using hand tools than a lazy worker who has power tools for instance

laurence scaduto
LS
laurence scaduto
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Those “someone elses” you mention seem to be doing an excellent job of holding onto their money. No sympathy due.
All through history, humans suffered under oligarchic regimes. Almost all of us were kept in an artificial state of misery. Now that we’ve begun to move beyond that, instead of argueing about the parameters of “misery” shouldn’t we be working toward a better existence for all?
Let the French retire at 62. In the end it’ll be better for all of us.

Last edited 1 year ago by laurence scaduto
Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Productivity at a national level has little to do with the work ethic of the average worker. It’s improved by investment in new tools and technologies to make it easier to produce more goods per hour. A hard working carpenter will build a timber frame much more slowly using hand tools than a lazy worker who has power tools for instance

laurence scaduto
LS
laurence scaduto
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Those “someone elses” you mention seem to be doing an excellent job of holding onto their money. No sympathy due.
All through history, humans suffered under oligarchic regimes. Almost all of us were kept in an artificial state of misery. Now that we’ve begun to move beyond that, instead of argueing about the parameters of “misery” shouldn’t we be working toward a better existence for all?
Let the French retire at 62. In the end it’ll be better for all of us.

Last edited 1 year ago by laurence scaduto
Euphrosinia Romanoff
Euphrosinia Romanoff
1 year ago

Re: ‘genuine thinkers’. Of whom the majority are born with the conviction that the ‘state’ will be taking care of them, throughout their lifetime. Same story in the French-speaking part of Belgium where socialists have ruled for half a century. This is fundamental difference with the Anglo-Saxon world. My neighbour in France retired at age 52 which was afforded by the combination of being a teacher (public official) and a mother of 4. She has since been engaged in the tireless hiking/climbing activities, to spend her energy and fill her days. That’s what they call ‘prendre du plaisir’. Work (as an employee) is never rewarding and is considered as an endless chore. This is just a random cross-section and should not be viewed as generalisation.
The female life expectancy in France is 85 (83 gen population) and growing, which is great. Doesn’t take a scientist to do the equation. France also has one of the EU lowest shares of the 50+ in the active population. Of all, the students, who are massively in the streets these days, should really take their calculators.
There is an indeniable attractiveness of the lifestyle. And a palpable propensity for getting one’s point across in the street rather than through elected bodies. I invite you to compare the amount of violence towards the MPs and the public buildings in France vs UK.
Then, the ineradicable elltist culture and ‘old boys’ networs’ (@Peter.B) dont help indeed.
Productivity is definitely not higher that in the UK. Btw, manufacturing represents only 13% of GDP and 12% of payrolls, and keeps descending. .

Peter B
PB
Peter B
1 year ago

I’ve also worked in France and my experience was quite different. Productivity in professional and technical activities is certainly no higher than in the UK.
Doing business is far more difficult and bureaucratic. There’s far more “old boy network” stuff in France than the UK (hard to believe though that is, it is the case in my experience). And industrial relations are still in the 1970s.
The lifestyle is indeed attractive. But it’s the last place I’d want to hire someone or set up a business.
Whether it’s affordable to retire at 62 *doesn’t matter at all* to the French. This is the whole problem here ! They just think they have the right to anyway, regardless of the cost. Someone else will pay. Until they run out of other people’s money. Very soon now.

Euphrosinia Romanoff
Euphrosinia Romanoff
1 year ago

Re: ‘genuine thinkers’. Of whom the majority are born with the conviction that the ‘state’ will be taking care of them, throughout their lifetime. Same story in the French-speaking part of Belgium where socialists have ruled for half a century. This is fundamental difference with the Anglo-Saxon world. My neighbour in France retired at age 52 which was afforded by the combination of being a teacher (public official) and a mother of 4. She has since been engaged in the tireless hiking/climbing activities, to spend her energy and fill her days. That’s what they call ‘prendre du plaisir’. Work (as an employee) is never rewarding and is considered as an endless chore. This is just a random cross-section and should not be viewed as generalisation.
The female life expectancy in France is 85 (83 gen population) and growing, which is great. Doesn’t take a scientist to do the equation. France also has one of the EU lowest shares of the 50+ in the active population. Of all, the students, who are massively in the streets these days, should really take their calculators.
There is an indeniable attractiveness of the lifestyle. And a palpable propensity for getting one’s point across in the street rather than through elected bodies. I invite you to compare the amount of violence towards the MPs and the public buildings in France vs UK.
Then, the ineradicable elltist culture and ‘old boys’ networs’ (@Peter.B) dont help indeed.
Productivity is definitely not higher that in the UK. Btw, manufacturing represents only 13% of GDP and 12% of payrolls, and keeps descending. .

STEPHEN GILDERT
SG
STEPHEN GILDERT
1 year ago

It’s wonderful to see the French rioting in the pursuit of a more balanced life. Having worked in France I was envious of their whole approach to work and life, compared to your average crazy commute, 24/7, sandwich at the desk Brit. And their productivity continues to be higher than ours. Whether or not it’s affordable to retire at 62 it clearly matters deeply to the French who invariably see things differently to the Anglo Saxons. Perhaps their continued, compulsory study of Philosophy to 18 creates more genuine thinkers than we can manage.

Bruce Edgar
Bruce Edgar
1 year ago

I’m having a problem with my attitude lately. Normally, I read excellent sites like these avidly, then jump in to make a profound comment. The which, to say it plain, blasts at the perpetuity of the problem with all the velocity of a BB shot smashing into the White Cliffs of Dover.
I love this site and am not complaining at all about its quality, value, relevance and so on.
And yet. Truly, it seems that story after story here and elsewhere merely chronicle the recurring stupidities and corruption of the simians from which we evolved.
So. Have hit upon a new, one size fits all reply reply to all news reports. One that accurately describes almost each and every story that we read nowadays.
I am ashamed of its vulgarity. I am embarrassed to share it. Doubtless the simians on this board will agree validity of both of these apprehensions. They will instantly down vote me as punishment.
To which I will respond, again using my simple, accurate, one size fits all reply to almost everything currently out there:
“More of the same Shit. Nothing has changed.”

Last edited 1 year ago by Bruce Edgar
Bruce Edgar
BE
Bruce Edgar
1 year ago

I’m having a problem with my attitude lately. Normally, I read excellent sites like these avidly, then jump in to make a profound comment. The which, to say it plain, blasts at the perpetuity of the problem with all the velocity of a BB shot smashing into the White Cliffs of Dover.
I love this site and am not complaining at all about its quality, value, relevance and so on.
And yet. Truly, it seems that story after story here and elsewhere merely chronicle the recurring stupidities and corruption of the simians from which we evolved.
So. Have hit upon a new, one size fits all reply reply to all news reports. One that accurately describes almost each and every story that we read nowadays.
I am ashamed of its vulgarity. I am embarrassed to share it. Doubtless the simians on this board will agree validity of both of these apprehensions. They will instantly down vote me as punishment.
To which I will respond, again using my simple, accurate, one size fits all reply to almost everything currently out there:
“More of the same Shit. Nothing has changed.”

Last edited 1 year ago by Bruce Edgar
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

There are billions of people around the world who work far more than 35 hours per week for much less remuneration than the least well paid Frenchman. As technology and connectivity makes them increasingly productive, our addiction to welfare will leave the West steadily poorer. Only a radical shift in our mindset – vanishingly unlikely given our politicians’ obsession with pronouns and other trivia – will avoid this fate.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

There are billions of people around the world who work far more than 35 hours per week for much less remuneration than the least well paid Frenchman. As technology and connectivity makes them increasingly productive, our addiction to welfare will leave the West steadily poorer. Only a radical shift in our mindset – vanishingly unlikely given our politicians’ obsession with pronouns and other trivia – will avoid this fate.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago

“Those cited as traitors are still working well past 64 and personify everything else that many French radicals detest about modern capitalism.”
So the mob is angry at people who’ve created businesses that employ millions of them and produce products that the world wants to buy. And then, horror of horrors, they still want to work at 64?

jane baker
JB
jane baker
1 year ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

These wimps of 70+ with their bus pass + their walking frame. That Japanese guy in a wheelchair from birth climbed Everest. If he can do it,you can do it too. Come on positive attitude.

Rocky Martiano
RM
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago
Reply to  jane baker

And why not? With the exception of those in manual jobs, most people in good health should be able to work well past 64. I’m still driving a desk at 70+, it keeps my mind alert and I’m not dependent on the state.
If Brits can wait till 67 for their state pension, why can’t the French?

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago
Reply to  jane baker

And why not? With the exception of those in manual jobs, most people in good health should be able to work well past 64. I’m still driving a desk at 70+, it keeps my mind alert and I’m not dependent on the state.
If Brits can wait till 67 for their state pension, why can’t the French?

jane baker
JB
jane baker
1 year ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

These wimps of 70+ with their bus pass + their walking frame. That Japanese guy in a wheelchair from birth climbed Everest. If he can do it,you can do it too. Come on positive attitude.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago

“Those cited as traitors are still working well past 64 and personify everything else that many French radicals detest about modern capitalism.”
So the mob is angry at people who’ve created businesses that employ millions of them and produce products that the world wants to buy. And then, horror of horrors, they still want to work at 64?

Emmanuel MARTIN
EM
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago

This is very alien to the way French people view the matter, to put it politely. The fact is that the far-left will try to hijack any movement to its pet peeves, usually with little success.
Retirement protests are about retirement age AND a rejection of Macron and his “reasonnable” policies. Billionaires play a very marginal role in this episode of the French political circus (aka la République que le monde entier nous envie).

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago

This is very alien to the way French people view the matter, to put it politely. The fact is that the far-left will try to hijack any movement to its pet peeves, usually with little success.
Retirement protests are about retirement age AND a rejection of Macron and his “reasonnable” policies. Billionaires play a very marginal role in this episode of the French political circus (aka la République que le monde entier nous envie).

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
1 year ago

No anger about the club they belong to?

Nik Jewell
NJ
Nik Jewell
1 year ago

No anger about the club they belong to?

Nicky Samengo-Turner
NS
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Many people cannot afford to buy what they are selling! what a crass and imbecilic remark?!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Many people cannot afford to buy what they are selling! what a crass and imbecilic remark?!