France, Guardian of Égalité, Leads the List of Ultrarich

PARIS — France, which has been riven lately by angry protests over income inequality, can now claim to have the world’s richest man and woman: Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury empire, and Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, the heiress of the global cosmetics giant L’Oréal.

Their combined net worth is nearly $300 billion, according to Forbes’s latest tally.

Mr. Arnault, 74, whose worldwide domain encompasses 75 brands, including Louis Vuitton handbags, Tiffany diamond rings, Christian Dior dresses and Sephora high-end cosmetics, leaped past American technology titans with a fortune estimated at $211 billion as of March 10, when the Forbes figures were tallied.

Ms. Bettencourt-Meyers, 69, who has led the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest women for three straight years, had an estimated net worth of $80.5 billion. A granddaughter of L’Oréal’s founder, she is on the company’s board and together with her husband makes many of the controlling decisions. Her company’s international cosmetics brands include Kiehl’s, Lancôme, Maybelline New York and Essie.

The eye-popping figures, which include the billionaires’ personal holdings of company stocks, testify to the resilience of wealthy consumers against a cost-of-living crisis, as high earners continued to splurge on luxury goods — especially in the wake of pandemic lockdowns. L’Oréal had global sales of over $38 billion last year, while LVMH had record revenue of $80 billion.

“More people are flocking to spending on luxury goods after having survived Covid lockdowns,” said Luca Solca, chief luxury goods analyst at Bernstein. “The middle class did suffer and is hollowing out. But the wealthy were untouched, and the upper middle class is spending on all fronts.”

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High-flying technology companies, on the other hand, have faced a major reckoning over the past year amid a surge in interest rates, high inflation and uncertain economic conditions. Rapid growth during the pandemic has been followed by widespread layoffs, and a nearly 30 percent slump in tech shares last year cut sharply into the fortunes of Elon Musk, owner of Twitter and Tesla, and Amazon’s executive chairman, Jeff Bezos. Mr. Musk slipped to second place in Forbes’s rankings, with an estimated fortune of $180 billion, and Mr. Bezos came in third with $114 billion.

The Forbes rankings caused a sensation in France this week, touching off a new round of headlines about income inequality and igniting debates over whether the ultrarich have augmented their fortunes by paying too little in taxes.

The country has been gripped by strikes and increasingly violent street demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension overhaul, which intends to raise the minimum age of retirement to 64 from 62. But the nationwide demonstrations — another is scheduled for Thursday — have also become rallying points for a broader protest over a glaring wealth divide. In France the richest 10 percent hold almost 80 percent of total wealth, according to the French statistics agency Insee.

Many of the protesters have made Mr. Arnault a main target for their ire, wielding unflattering posters and images of the multibillionaire as the symbol of a deeper problem afflicting the country.

“Mr. Arnault is seen as the embodiment of the ultrarich,” said Philippe Escande, an economics columnist for the newspaper Le Monde. “But France is a country where equality — namely ‘liberté, égalité and fraternité’ — is very important, dating all the way back to the Revolution,” he said. “There is a problem with money.”

Coinciding with the rise in Mr. Arnault’s fortunes has been a visible flexing of LVMH’s muscle around central Paris: Across the city, four-story-high billboards trumpet LVMH brands. The Champs-Élysées is dominated by a massive Dior building being refurbished next to a Louis Vuitton flagship store. On Wednesday, a day ahead of new protests, the militant CGT labor union unfurled a banner atop the Arc de Triomphe, within eyeshot of Mr. Arnault’s boutiques, denouncing a higher retirement age. Critics say higher taxes on the rich could bolster pension accounts and avoid the need to raise the retirement age.

Mr. Arnault has shot back, pointing out that his company hired 40,000 people globally in 2022, and invested 5 billion euros ($5.5 billion) in new stores and workshops in France.

He has also been preparing to keep his empire a family affair for generations. In moves worthy of the Netflix hit “Succession,” Mr. Arnault has taken pains to extend his own retirement age to 80, and within the last year has placed each of his five adult children into a strategic position within the group, setting up a battle over who might ascend to his perch.

Overall, the Forbes list showed that Europe’s billionaires have made their money in traditional sectors, such as luxury, retail, consumer goods, food and industrial companies. Almost none of its billionaires are technology chiefs, the bulk of those coming from the United States and China.

“In two or three years, tech is likely to be back” at the top of the list of richest earners, Mr. Escande said, reflecting the continued economic power of the United States and China.

In Europe, “we still don’t have anything comparable to Apple, Amazon, Netflix or Google,” he noted, “even after trying for 20 years.”

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