INTERNATIONAL – The French are hypocrites about money, the soccer star Nicolas Anelka once said after his fellow citizens criticized his love of expensive sports cars.
Fed up with the country’s high taxes and the social pressure to avoid vulgar displays of wealth, he went off to play in England instead. It’s not that the French don’t love money as much as everyone else, Anelka averred, it’s just that “in France, you hide what you have.”
The footballer’s comments came to mind this week after the latest ministerial downfall in President Emmanuel Macron’s administration. The now ex-minister of energy Francois de Rugy is reported to have lived lavishly behind closed doors when he was heading the lower chamber of parliament, serving lobster dinners and $550 bottles of wine at taxpayer expense. He did this while making a public virtue of his zeal for transparency and belt-tightening.
France has had its share of champagne socialists (or gauche caviar) in the past; the former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac had a secret Swiss bank account. De Rugy surely must be the first lobster ecologist, though. He protested that he himself was allergic to crustaceans and that champagne gave him a headache, but he insisted that dinners at France’s National Assembly had certain standards and customs to maintain. A French politician shouldn’t be held to a Swedish-style level of probity where even an unpaid for candy bar might bring someone down, he said.
There may have been a time when this kind of defense worked. But coming from a public servant who earned about 14,500 euros per month (close to Macron’s salary) when he ran the National Assembly, it’s incredibly tin-eared in the current political climate. Neither the Gilets Jaunes protesters who smashed up the Champs Elysees last year, nor Macron’s white-collar admirers who work in the private sector, will see lobster as a justified perk for a public servant. Not least when the country is trying to tackle its dependency on heavy state spending.
Indeed, attitudes in France seem to be hardening toward wealth, whether you’re a relatively high-earning fonctionnaire like De Rugy taking advantage of his dining expenses or one of the business tycoons who flourish in the country. While opprobrium would have been reserved once for the conspicuous consumption of football players, or the former “bling, bling” president Nicolas Sarkozy, even those who enjoy their wealth discreetly are fair game now.
Like everywhere else, the gap is widening in France between the economy’s winners and losers, and the government is losing its capacity to compensate the less fortunate by spending more. Property prices in Paris have risen almost 30% in four years, which means France minted new millionaires at a faster pace last year than any country bar the U.S., according to Credit Suisse. Rent controls have been brought back to help tenants.
French billionaires aren’t doing badly either. According to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, their wealth grew quicker than that of every other nation’s tycoons in the first half of 2019. Bernard Arnault, the boss and owner of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, has clinched the spot of world’s second-richest person from Bill Gates. This is unlikely to be greeted with any applause from the public, judging by the outcry after Arnault pledged to help fund the reconstruction of Notre Dame cathedral.
Redistribution by the French state does at least still keep the country’s income inequality below the OECD average. Nevertheless, the OECD economists Laurence Boone and Antoine Goujard warn that social mobility has stalled in the country. They say it would take more than six generations before somebody at the low end of the revenue scale reached the average in France. Only Hungary scores worse. Inequality of opportunity and an education system in dire need of reform are the real failures that explain the furor around “lobster-gate.”
In the meantime, more concrete oversight rules of lawmaker expenses and a detailed audit of the National Assembly budget wouldn’t go amiss. Or at least keep the bubbly on ice.