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A masked protester stands in front of the Bank of France offices during a demonstration as part of the 12th day of nationwide strikes and protests against the French government's pension reform, in Paris on April 13. The slogan reads "Tax the rich."STEPHANE MAHE/Reuters

The country that gave the world the coveted Louis Vuitton handbag hates rich people.

This is the irony that jumps out at you when you come face to face with an angry mob of protesters chanting anti-capitalist slogans, as I recently did on my way to dinner in Paris’s Marais neighbourhood. Most of the mainly twenty-somethings marching in my direction looked like they had just stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial. But they were on the warpath against anything that smelled of money or materialism, no matter how stylish they seemed.

The bands of protesters who took to the streets of the French capital last week in the wake of a decision by the country’s top court validating President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial pension reform law smashed store windows, set garbage bins on fire and even smeared feces on ATM machines and bank branches. In recent weeks, dozens of similar protests over the pension reform plan have left Paris and other French cities on edge and covered in graffiti denouncing Mr. Macron and his apparent subservience to market forces.

“Fund pensions; rob the bourgeoisie,” goes one of my favourite tags. “I spit on capitalism for more happiness,” is another.

On Thursday, hundreds of protesters stormed the Paris stock exchange building itself. “We chose the Bourse de Paris because it is the symbol of the CAC 40,” one union leader said of the index of top French companies. “We want the CAC 40 to pay for our pensions.”

What is clear as Mr. Macron moves to raise France’s retirement age to 64 from 62 – which would still make it among the lowest of any developed country – is how the opposition to the change aimed at eliminating a growing deficit in the country’s pension system is representative of the conflicted relationship the French have with capitalism itself. It is no coincidence that the term “bourgeois” originated in France and came to acquire its negative connotation there. The French have always looked down on the profit motive. They like to think of themselves as being above the crude determinations of the market, even if it’s blatantly untrue.

“Anticapitalism is stronger in France than in almost all the other countries surveyed,” German historian Rainer Zitelmann, whose most recent book explores perceptions of capitalism around the world, recently told L’Express magazine. “The French left is obsessed with anticapitalism, but so is part of the French right, like [National Rally leader] Marine Le Pen … In no other nation is social jealousy of the rich as strong as in France.”

This may seem incongruous given France’s massive dominance of the global luxury goods market. After all, the rest of the world still associates France with the finer things in life. Its big-name luxury brands are to France what Google, Amazon, Meta and Apple are to the United States.

On the day before the Constitutional Council gave its thumbs up to the pension reform plan, protesters stormed the headquarters of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton just off the Champs-Elysées, chanting: “The money for pensions is here.”

The same day, LVMH’s share price hit a record high on the Paris Bourse, which itself has hit successive new peaks in recent weeks on the strength of LVMH, Hermès, Kering, L’Oréal and other French fashion and cosmetics giants that have seen global sales and profits surge, especially as China’s economy reopens.

For the first time, the world’s richest man and woman are both French, with LVMH-controlling shareholder Bernard Arnault topping this year’s Forbes billionaires list, with a fortune worth an estimated US$211-billion, and L’Oréal heiress Françoise Bettencourt Meyers in 11th place overall with an estimated net worth of US$80.5-billion.

French brands accounted for 34.5 per cent of the US$305-billion in sales registered by the world’s top 100 luxury goods companies in 2021, according to consulting firm Deloitte’s latest Global Powers of Luxury Goods report, an increase of 6.2 percentage points from 2020. LVMH – which also owns Christian Dior, Tiffany & Co., Fendi, Tag Heuer and Bulgari among others – alone posted sales of more than US$75-billion. And that was before the pandemic ended.

You might think LVMH’s global success would at least win Mr. Arnault grudging admiration from the French public. Not so. Except for Mr. Macron, no individual has been the target of more opprobrium from opponents of the pension reform law than the 74-year-old Mr. Arnault. His face plastered on “Wanted” posters has been a fixture at their demonstrations.

As a result, LVMH has gone on a charm offensive in recent weeks. Its glossy Louis Vuitton ads featuring movie stars and sports celebrities have been replaced in the pages of French newspapers with ones touting its patriotism, environmental leadership and contribution to the French economy as the country’s biggest job creator. No word on whether its working.

In the land of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the accent falls mostly on Égalité.

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