While many believe that the battle over who is the richest man in the world is between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the crown is actually to someone closer to home.
Bernard Arnault, a French luxury goods oligarch, has a fortune of around €177.5 billion, and recently overtook the Twitter owner as the world’s richest man.
Yet, as one might imagine, accumulating such vast wealth isn’t always through ethical means. Arnault may have started from humble beginnings but became increasingly rapacious as his fortune grew.
After getting his start at his father’s real estate company in the 1970s, Arnault acquired Christian Dior‘s then-bankrupt parent company in 1984. Despite promising to maintain jobs, he quickly laid off 9,000 people which earned himself the nickname ‘The Terminator’.
What followed in the next few decades was a buying spree of companies in fashion, fragrance, jewellery, watches, fine wines and spirits – giving birth to Arnault’s LVMH empire. As a banker close to one of these deals explained, “Bernard Arnault is a predator, not a creator”.
What are some of the secrets to LVMH’s profitability, other than ruthless acquisitions and mass layoffs?
While there are too many to count, among them include exploiting embroiders in India, as a New York Times investigation showed. Arnault also allegedly hired a former intelligence official to spy on competitors and individuals, including an activist making a film about him.
It’s not just people that have faced the brunt of Arnault’s callousness. He has polluted the planet massively in order to maintain product scarcity and “exclusivity” by, quite literally, burning billions worth of unsold merchandise.
While 10 million people live in poverty in France, Arnault lives in a 12-bedroom, 12-bathroom mansion in Paris worth €200 million. His property portfolio also includes homes in the French Riviera and Alps, Beverly Hills, and a private island in the Bahamas.
Media and political influence
Arnault is not shy about trying to strong-arm French media when they dare to shine a negative light on him. After Le Monde revealed his use of tax havens as part of the Panama Papers leak in 2017, Arnault threatened to pull all ads from the newspaper.
He is a staunch supporter of Emmanuel Macron, and was at the White House banquet in honour of the French president during his trip to Washington this month.
Arnault’s ballooning wealth shows that extreme inequalities and all-powerful oligarchs are not exclusive to the US, to Eastern Europe, or to any other place. The mega-rich keep sprouting up everywhere, and only get richer the more common people struggle to make ends meet.
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