April 4, 2023 - 2:30pm


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.