French exceptionalism? Bankers, billionaires balk at Macron's elitism

By Leigh Thomas
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a ceremony marking the 78th anniversary of late French General Charles de Gaulle's resistance call of June 18, 1940, at the Mont Valerien memorial in Suresnes, near Paris, France, June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Pool

By Leigh Thomas

PARIS (Reuters) - Perhaps only in France would a billionaire and one of the nation's most powerful bankers both publicly chastise the president for neglecting ordinary people.

But such is France's professed attachment to its egalitarian tradition that such unlikely critics took aim at Emmanuel Macron on Friday over his promotion of a more meritocratic culture.

"Macron doesn't understand the little people. I'm afraid he's leading France toward a system that leaves the least favored behind," Le Monde quoted Francois Pinault, whose business empire includes the Gucci fashion house, as saying.

The man who led Macron's presidential campaign last year, Richard Ferrand, reacted with irony. "No doubt only billionaires can understand others," he tweeted in response to Pinault, one of France's richest men.

Macron, who defeated a far right populist in the 2017 election, questions his predecessors' preference for hefty welfare transfers from the rich to the poor to ease inequality.

Instead, he believes in removing barriers to success for the most talented in France, who will then pull society up generally by starting companies and creating jobs.

The 40-year-old former investment banker has justified the scrapping of the wealth tax, for example, with the metaphor of a lead mountaineer drawing up companions clinging to a rope below.

But Pinault, the founder of the Kering luxury goods group, is not alone in worrying about poorer citizens, many of whom live on suburban housing estates that ring French cities.

Matthieu Pigasse, who heads the Lazard investment bank in France, said: "He lacks an essential social dimension and a policy to fight against inequalities in all forms."

"Where are the plans for the suburbs, the fight against poverty and extra efforts for higher education?" the dealmaker who part owns Le Monde and other media, told Les Echos business newspaper.

NEW PLATES AND POOL

While France has inequality problems, they are not as severe as in other rich countries, OECD data show. This is largely due to the large social transfers, which Macron criticized this month for costing "too much dough" and which help explain why French taxes are among the highest in the world.

Macron's comment went down poorly with the French left, and others, adding to perceptions that he is out of touch with ordinary folk.

Then this week reports emerged that taxpayers' money will fund dinner plates at the Elysee Palace and a new swimming pool at a presidential retreat on the Riviera.

Voters are unconvinced his meritocratic push is reducing inequalities. More than half believe they have worsened under his leadership, according to an OpinionWay poll last month.

However, Pigasse said: "I wish him success, because he's the last bastion against populism in France."

(Reporting by Leigh Thomas; editing by Richard Lough and David Stamp)