Corporate France Says: Hands Off Our Private Jets

French tycoons face rising scrutiny over their use of private jets for even the shortest flights. Business lobby group MEDEF’s summit struck down all criticism of the superrich — and set out plans for an energy transition that puts their interests first.

Amid a record-setting summer heat wave, social media users took to publicizing the extravagant private flight itineraries of corporate executives. (Colin Anderson Productions / Getty Images)

“Let’s avoid symbolic, attention-grabbing responses, whose actual carbon impact is insignificant or very low,” Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, president of France’s most powerful business lobby, Le Mouvement des Entreprises de France (MEDEF), warned on August 30. “You all know what I’m alluding to.”

Roux de Bézieux was referring to one of the salutary scandals that has managed to pierce the French news cycle of late: private jets. Amid a record-setting summer heat wave — which, coming on the heels of a protracted drought, has left large parts of the country exposed to violent forest fires — social media users took to publicizing the flight itineraries of corporate executives.

One was France’s wealthiest individual, Bernard Arnault, who on May 25 took a ten-minute flight to London from one of his properties west of the British capital. Added together, the eighteen flights taken that month by Arnault, who is owner of the LVMH luxury goods conglomerate, emitted an estimated 176 tons of carbon dioxide. Vincent Bolloré, who in recent years has moved to consolidate a far-right pole in French media, took his Falcon 7X jet on a three-flight circuit on July 17, departing from Toulon to Paris at 4 PM before taking an early evening jaunt to Naples and returning to Paris that same night. Marianne estimates that the day’s trip released fourteen tons of carbon dioxide — more than the 11.5 tons resulting from the average French person’s annual consumption.

Figures from left-wing coalition Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES) have renewed calls for a ban on private jets, accusing the government of taking Band-Aid solutions to the environmental crisis, as Western Europe prepares for an energy-strapped winter. “A [private] jet is ten times more polluting than a standard plane,” Green leader Julien Bayou told FranceInfo in late August. “So, it’s time they were banned, because they’re literally poisoning us.”

But over the approving applause from the like-minded audience assembled at business lobby MEDEF’s annual convention, Roux de Bézieux’s sally was really directed at Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, appointed by President Emmanuel Macron in May. Sitting in the front row of seats at the Longchamp Hippodrome on the western edge of Paris, Borne was guest of honor on the first day of the MEDEF’s “summer university” held on August 29 and 30. In her brief speech, she exhorted French executives to prepare for a hard winter and choose self-imposed energy savings, claiming that private businesses would be the first to face rationing in the event of power shortages.

Days earlier, however, Borne’s transport minister, Clément Beaune — sometimes termed a leader of the “progressive” wing of Macron’s coalition — came out in support of new regulations on the use of private jets. A nod to public pressure, Beaune’s position has thus far remained hypothetical, and he has said that the plan would need to be enacted on the European level. Prior attempts by Macron’s government to restrict air travel resulted in largely redundant limitations, such as watered-down proposals from the Citizens’ Convention for Climate that were included in the 2021 Climate and Resilience Law.

Nonetheless, it is rare to see finger-wagging like this coming from members of Macron’s government. Since 2017, through a string of tax cuts on corporations, large fortunes, and capital gains — allied to reforms to the labor code designed to tilt bargaining power in favor of employers — Macron’s administration has devoted most its time and energy to improving business conditions in France. This has come at the expense of social protections and a more aggressive environmental policy.

The spat over private jets is a reminder that if the winds are far from having changed, the original Macronist project is being forced to adapt to an era of political and ecological instability. In a video excerpted from an August 24 cabinet meeting, Macron declared that politics today must cope with a changed basic reality: “the end of abundance.” But those who are already best off are keen that they shouldn’t be the ones who pay.

No More Good Old Days

Macron’s pessimism was echoed by MEDEF chief Roux de Bézieux. The latter’s speech at the employers’ meetup was in large part a eulogy for the now-past age of “happy globalization,” brought to a sudden halt by the outbreak of war in Eastern Europe as global recession and social unrest rear their heads on the horizon. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky opened the convention with a live-streamed address at noon on August 30, calling on European businesses to stay the course in decoupling from Russia.

Were it not for the economic and political turbulence, the MEDEF convention would have been the occasion to celebrate the business lobby’s accomplishments of Macron’s first term. “France is no longer the tax hell that it used to be,” Roux de Bézieux rejoiced, claiming that business leaders are altogether satisfied with current corporate tax rates.

“We don’t want France to become a tax haven,” he said, nonetheless warning the government to “leave [John Maynard] Keynes in his tomb” and avoid recycling pandemic-era financial support for the economy for the coming energy squeeze — especially if it comes at the long-term cost of backpedaling on tax cuts: “The best way to help French households is to make their employers more competitive.”

“To keep getting good economic outcomes, there’s only one solution: stay the course on supply-side policies,” finance minister Bruno Le Maire said in his speech before the convention on August 31. “Lower taxes, more employment, more wealth for all French people.”

The phasing out of a production tax is slated to enter effect in 2023, to the tune of €10 billion in missing revenue for state coffers. But the softer tone from Roux de Bézieux is a sign that the business lobby may be looking to consolidate its victories — and fend off threats to them.

With the opening of France’s new parliament this July, left-wing figures from the NUPES alliance have pushed for the targeted taxation of the windfall profits that French corporations have pocketed since the onset of accelerated inflation in late 2021. The oil major TotalEnergies — currently embroiled in a scandal revolving its slow divestment from Russian energy interests and revelations that one of its partnerships has been refining gas for use by the Russian air force — raked in €5.6 billion in the second quarter of 2022, more than double its profits over the same period last year.

Borne has equivocated on the issue. The anti-inflation legislative package enacted this summer was dutifully passed over left-wing proposals to fund support for consumers and households through new levies on windfall profits. The government’s line is that businesses lower prices for consumers out of their own good graces. Yet Borne told Le Parisien that she was not yet “closing the door” on taxing superprofits.

The issue will resurface in coming months and years — through upcoming budgeting negotiations, as inflation takes a harsher bite out of consumers’ pockets and as public opinion demands accelerated efforts to reshape Europe’s energy infrastructure. That second-term president Macron is now unable to seek reelection means that the battle to be his successor within the governing majority is open, as his lieutenants seek to carve out their own distinct line. Even European commissioner Ursula von der Leyen has hinted that taxing corporate superprofits ought to be part of crisis measures to prepare the rapid divorce of the continent’s energy system from Russian oil and gas.

The MEDEF likewise currently seems hesitant to join the government in a new campaign to reform France’s pension system — the “mother of all reforms,” as it is often called, and which already caused a massive wave of union resistance when Macron’s government last attempted it in winter 2019–20. Macron’s blueprint is taken straight out of the Right’s playbook, however, intending to gradually raise the retirement age to between sixty-four and sixty-five. But with parliamentary business derailed by Macron’s loss of his absolute majority in June and pending a potential dissolution, some fear that the subject would be too explosive to bring up in the current social climate.

Vive Les Riches!

Yet it would be exaggeration to say that France’s business lobby is shifting to a defensive posture. The Macronists’ weakened position in Parliament will for now force them to work most closely with the center-right Republicans — the MEDEF’s other party, we might say. Beyond consolidating its victories through the oncoming and likely durable shift in the global economic situation — and all the political instability that might entail — there are still inroads that French capital hopes to make.

Hiring difficulties are currently the chief preoccupation for business owners in France, even though the country still has a relatively high unemployment rate, at 7 percent of the workforce. This marks a return to the country’s pre-2008 and pre-COVID levels, and France’s trade unions insist that the country’s structurally high level of unemployment is first and foremost a result of a dearth in well-paid, attractive, and accessible jobs.

“They’re telling us that we need to reduce unemployment benefits to arrive at full employment?” Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) union leader Laurent Berger asked rhetorically, in an interview with Le Monde. “That’s not true. Full employment means job training, accompanying people looking for employment, and developing high-quality jobs.” France’s often divided unions met on September 5 in the hope of crafting a united strategy for the months ahead.

The government, however, is feeding off the MEDEF’s argument that hiring difficulties are primarily a symptom of the attractiveness or generosity of unemployment benefits. A new round of reforms to the insurance system is slated to be one of the first topics when Parliament reconvenes this fall, with the government hoping to peg the size of unemployment checks to the state of the economy, such that an unemployed worker would receive a smaller payout in better macroeconomic conditions. If unions prove recalcitrant on coming to the negotiating table (on the Right’s terms), Roux de Bézieux has urged the government to “take things into its own hands.”

“History is tragic, and peace is the exception,” Roux de Bézieux waxed in his speech, donning the hat of the philosopher-entrepreneur to regret the passing of liberal capitalism’s golden age. Never mind the MEDEF’s push to tighten unemployment benefits, restrict collective bargaining powers, and avert any talk of new taxation: there is still a “European model” of capitalism, charting a just middle ground between the United States and China. But somewhere beneath the moderate veneer is the old firebrand. “Long live business,” he concluded, “long live entrepreneurs!”