French Billionaires vs. American Billionaires

What can we learn from the latest Forbes ranking? French heirs lead the luxury and gastronomy sectors, while their American rivals are self-made men (and women) in finance and tech. Two countries, two histories.
© Antoine Moreau-Dusault

The richest man in the world is French: Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, a luxury empire of 75 brands. After all, everyone knows Louis Vuitton bags and Christian Dior fragrances. In the billionaires list published every year by Forbes magazine, the French businessman beat out wealthy Americans such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates. And Bernard Arnault is not alone. The world’s richest woman is also French – Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, the heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics dynasty. They are accompanied by François Pinault, founder of the Kering group (Saint Laurent, Cartier, and Gucci, among others) and brothers Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, owners of Chanel. But the Forbes list is not just a snapshot of wealth and vanity; it also offers a glimpse of the contemporary world. Year on year, we have seen the rise of Chinese and Indian billionaires – although it is hard to say whether they owe their sudden success to entrepreneurial talent or ties to political power. But let us return to the French-American comparison, which shows that wealth does not come from the same places. In fact, it reveals the parallel – but not identical – histories and destinies of our two countries.

The U.S. billionaires on the list have rarely inherited their fortunes. Almost all of them have founded their companies and led by innovation. Top financiers such as Stephen Schwarzman (Blackstone) and Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway) have created revolutionary algorithms, growing and creatively adapting to the capitalistic needs of the globalized economy. Meanwhile French bankers have remained rooted in bourgeois traditions and have failed to take advantage of globalization. The other category of American billionaires includes tech titans – entrepreneurs in transportation (Tesla), media (Facebook, Bloomberg), logistics (Amazon, Walmart), and computers (Microsoft, Google, Dell). Each has spearheaded a seismic shift that has become part of the infrastructure of the new, globalized world. The rise of this new, ultra-wealthy class is therefore the reflection of and the foundation for the globalized economy and trade.

This list highlights the contrast between France and the United States, reflecting past and present differences while embodying our long, individual histories. Bernard Arnault, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, François Pinault, and the Wertheimer brothers are indirect descendants of suppliers to the royal court of Versailles. During the reign of Louis XIV, luxury manufacturers – of clothing, footwear, jewelry, and perfume – became French before they were international. The 1789 Revolution had little impact on this sector, quite the opposite in fact. In an equal society in which noble titles have disappeared, elegance – supported by an immediately recognizable brand– is the only way to distinguish oneself. In 1979, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote about how democratic societies were gripped by the pursuit of distinction. Louis Vuitton handbags and Hermès scarves set those who wear them apart. Such is contemporary nobility, which Bernard Arnault has tapped into by creating an empire of what he calls “Houses.” LVMH has conquered the world because its leader understands that “the narcissism of small differences” – to borrow Sigmund Freud’s expression – is the universal driver of our behaviors. It should also be noted that the top French names published by Forbes were all born into wealth. Arnault, Bettencourt Meyers, Pinault, and the Wertheimers have developed assets that they inherited. France is still aristocratic, after all. The list also includes Emmanuel Besnier, heir to the Lactalis group, the global leader in milk, butter, and cheese. What could be more French than billionaires linked to either fashion or gastronomy?

The French follow the path carved by their long history, but so do the Americans. Aside from rare exceptions such as Walmart’s Walton family, U.S. billionaires have not inherited their wealth. Dating back to the time of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, American tradition dictates that one’s fortune should not be left entirely to family and children, but rather redistributed via philanthropic endeavors. In the United States, philanthropy is a way to seek forgiveness for being too rich. Most French billionaires have not adopted this approach. In France, we pass down, we do not give away. But who do we find when looking back through the history of ultra-wealthy Americans? Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod, John Jacob Astor and his furs, Cornelius Vanderbilt and his railroads, and Henry Ford and his Model T. Innovators and major philanthropists, every last one.

Many will remember that a freshly elected Emmanuel Macron promised to make France into a new Silicon Valley – a recurring fantasy among French politicians – which he described in perfect Frenglish as “une start-up nation.” However, this plan has failed because we are heirs to and prisoners of our own, long history. France is focused on pleasure, luxury, and the craft of gastronomy, while the United States is home to technical innovators. Even a governmental decree cannot change the course of history, and the economy is merely a reflection of this entrenched past. As for whether the wealth in this latest ranking is justified, Forbes is yet to say…

Editorial published in the June 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.