In a remarkable turn of events, France has recently made headlines as the home of the world’s wealthiest man and woman. Bernard Arnault, the CEO of luxury powerhouse LVMH, and Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, the heiress to the cosmetics empire L’Oréal, together boast a combined net worth of a jaw-dropping $300 billion, as reported by Forbes.
At age 74, Arnault has surpassed American tech giants with an estimated fortune of $211 billion. His success is built on a vast collection of 75 luxury brands, such as Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, Christian Dior, and Sephora. On the other hand, Bettencourt-Meyers, 69, has been the world’s wealthiest woman for three years, with an estimated net worth of $80.5 billion. As a key decision-maker for L’Oréal and a granddaughter of its founder, she is instrumental in the company’s continued success, which boasts international brands like Kiehl’s, Lancôme, Maybelline New York, and Essie.
These impressive numbers indicate the financial resilience of affluent consumers during times of economic crisis. Despite cost-of-living challenges, high earners have continued to splurge on luxury goods, especially after the lockdowns during the pandemic. Last year, L’Oréal saw global sales exceed $38 billion, while LVMH enjoyed a record revenue of $80 billion.
Conversely, the technology sector has faced difficulties in the past year, with interest rate hikes, high inflation, and economic uncertainty taking a toll. The significant decline in tech shares last year reduced the fortunes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, now placing them second and third on Forbes’s list, with fortunes of $180 billion and $114 billion, respectively.
The Forbes rankings have reignited discussions surrounding income inequality and the taxation of the ultra-rich in France. The country is currently experiencing protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms, which have also become rallying points for addressing the stark wealth divide. In France, the top 10% of earners hold almost half of the nation’s wealth, with their share growing more rapidly than the rest of the population.
Many protesters view Arnault as a symbol of the ultra-rich and the larger issue of wealth disparity in France. While some critics argue that higher taxes on the wealthy could improve pension funds and prevent an increase in the retirement age, Arnault highlights LVMH’s contributions to the economy, such as hiring 40,000 people worldwide in 2022 and investing €5 billion ($5.5 billion) in new stores and workshops in France.
European billionaires have primarily accumulated wealth through traditional sectors like luxury, retail, consumer goods, food, and industrial companies. In contrast, most tech billionaires hail from the United States and China. Some experts, like Philippe Escande, an economics columnist for Le Monde, predict that tech will likely return to the top of the list of wealthiest earners within a few years, reflecting the ongoing economic dominance of the United States and China.
As the global economy continues to plummet, the ascent of Arnault and Bettencourt-Meyers to the top of the global wealth rankings highlights not only the strength of the luxury and cosmetics industries but also the pressing issue of wealth disparity in France and worldwide. As protests continue and debates about income inequality, taxation, and the roles of traditional and tech sectors in shaping the global economy gain traction, governments, and societies must address these concerns and seek solutions that promote fairness and balance.