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Money, money, money

France’s curious distaste for the rich

Billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault with his wife, the actress Salma Hayek. Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty

France recently overtook Japan, the UK and Germany “to clock more millionaires than everywhere else except the US and China”, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in UnHerd. The French are not thrilled: one left-wing politician said she was dreaming of a country without “vampire” billionaires. On the right, 35% of National Rally voters say they would be “happier living in a country without rich citizens”, and publications like Marianne indulge in “two-minute-hate front pages” abusing tycoons like LVMH boss Bernard Arnault. When Arnault said he would move to Belgium in 2012, in response to France’s short-lived 75% “super-tax”, the left-wing newspaper Libération ran a front page reading: “F*** off, rich berk!”

Money, to the French, is “dirty” – in a way that sex isn’t. Whereas most sex scandals are greeted with a “Gallic shrug”, controversies involving money can sink a career. When Jacques Chaban-Delmas, “once predicted to become France’s next president”, was caught using a perfectly legal loophole that exempted him from paying income tax in the late 1960s, he vanished from politics “in lasting disgrace”. A 17th-century finance minister was imprisoned for life “for giving a too sumptuous party for the King”. In 1893, France even put a tax on pianos because they were seen as synonymous with wealth. Owners trying to avoid the levy destroyed thousands of the instruments, “including some historic ones on which Chopin and Liszt had played”. Clearly, the idea that money is “always ill-gotten” is ingrained in the French psyche. “And nothing is going to shake it.”