French Billionaires Seize Pandemic Opportunities

(Bloomberg Opinion) - Of all the billionaires in the world, with the exception of those from China, the French have just passed their most lucrative decade, according to a new UBS / PwC study.
LVMH boss Moet Hennessy, Louis Vuitton SE, Bernard Arnault, and his team saw their fortune more than quintupled between 2009 and mid-2020 to $ 443 billion. France is the country of what the writer Pascal Bruckner calls "Bolshevism-Lite", where wealth is publicly hated but privately hoarded.
While the Covid-19 pandemic looks like the beginning of an overall less bright decade, the rich are unlikely to wipe out this crisis.
There are new Darwinian divisions in the corporate world, exposing a kind of gilded inequality at the top of society. Soaring tech companies can shake off social distancing, while old-school stationary companies can't. Arnault's net worth has plummeted $ 19 billion since the start of the year as tourism and shopping took a heavy hit, despite the fact that he's still the fifth richest man in the world, according to Bloomberg data. Francoise Bettencourt Meyers from L’Oreal SA is now facing tough competition for her title as richest woman in the world from Mackenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos' ex-wife.
In France, the coronavirus crisis has led the ultra-rich to become aware of the need to do more, even in a country where American-style philanthropy is usually seen as a job for the state. Hermes International donated 20 million euros to the Paris Hospital Association in May. LVMH gave ventilators and made masks. The glamor of public opinion cannot be so easily ignored, as the backlash to billionaire donations during the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral last year demonstrated.
In this dog-eat-dog world, every small company victory counts. Arnault's most visible onset of Covid-19 opportunism was attempting to break away from LVMH's gigantic acquisition of U.S. jeweler Tiffany & Co. worth $ 16 billion after the target's share price fell. Even if he fails, he will have bought time. Elsewhere, the declining value of Altice Europe, the vehicle of telecommunications mogul Patrick Drahi, led the Franco-Israeli billionaire to take it privately at an opportunistically low price of 2.5 billion euros. He faced the howls of the minority shareholders.
The current climate even offers tycoons the perfect chance to gain more power and influence through Lagardere SCA, the once powerful industrial conglomerate that, as a media and retail game under the family heir Arnaud Lagardere, has suffered a mixed fate.
Under pressure from activist Amber Capital, the French billionaires lined up to take a position: Vincent Bollore of Vivendi SA, Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere and Arnault of LVMH recently bought shares, almost doubling Lagardere's share price. While it initially looked like a defensive whip to aid Arnaud Lagardere, it is now becoming increasingly clear that Arnault and Bollore are in a battle for control. The price they're all looking for? The company owns the grandfather of glossy magazines, Paris Match, the book publisher Hachette, and politically influential radio and newspaper brands.
Billionaires have always been drawn to media outlets and are already having a lot of influence on President Emmanuel Macron. The one-time chance of winning the pandemic, however, comes in the run-up to the French presidential election in 2022.
All of this may seem rather curious compared to Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk's space ambitions. France's increasingly Jurassic jet set prefers radio-branded missiles. This is in part because the world is getting smaller and smaller for all rising Parisian elites. If it hadn't worked out at home, they might have dreamed of trading props in the City of London or starting a start-up in Silicon Valley. But cross-border trotting doesn't look so safe anymore. The future of French wealth lies in France, not Mars.
This is not just a French phenomenon: of all the business and investment strategies pursued by the world's billionaires, moving to another country is the least popular, according to the UBS / PwC study. In a crisis like this, however, there is no place like Paris.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on the European Union and France. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
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