The World’s New Richest Man, Bernard Arnault, Is Hardly Better Than Elon Musk

Hold your applause for luxury brand magnate Bernard Arnault, the billionaire who just surpassed Elon Musk as the richest man in the world. He may not be taunting the Left on social media, but he’s just as much an emblem of grotesque inequality.

Bernard Arnault, billionaire and chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, in Vendome, France, on Februrary 22, 2022. (Nathan Laine / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Thanks to the short-circuiting of Tesla’s share prices, Elon Musk is no longer Earth’s richest man. The new holder of the inglorious title of the world’s wealthiest man is LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault.

News of Musk’s cash flow slippage has struck some liberals and leftists as cause for celebration, prompting a round of high-fives on social media. “French sophistication beats US clueless hi-tech,” read one tweet from a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The Musk-dunking is understandable on some level. Since taking over as CEO of Twitter in October, the clown prince of Big Tech has behaved a bit like a Gen-X Donald Trump, a billionaire bad boy who makes business and personnel decisions based on arbitrary whims or wounds to his Mars-sized ego. In contrast, “Bernard Arnault lives his life as most of us might with those billions: buying art, throwing parties, helping to rebuild Notre Dame, not trolling,” tweeted a former Obama staffer turned CNN analyst.

But hold your applause for Arnault. Just as liberals’ white-hot hate for Trump led to misplaced admiration for “normal conservatives” like George W. Bush, it’s a mistake to prefer a “drama-free” old world European oligarch so you can go back to brunch.

Feeling the Wrong Kind of Bern

Arnault’s bio as if assembled by typing the phrases “rich French guy” and “Bond villain” into OpenAI’s newfangled chatbot program.

He grew up wealthy in Northern France, but panicked after François Mitterrand got elected the first socialist president in 1981 and fled to Ronald Reagan’s Wall Street–friendly America at age thirty-two. That self-imposed exile lasted only a couple of years as he returned to his home country in 1983 to purchase the Boussac empire, a textile and retail conglomerate that owned the Dior fashion house.

In 2012, Arnault planned to leave his home again in objection to rising taxes, but seemingly got shamed into staying by the country’s press, which had already dubbed him “The Terminator” for his ruthless business practices, including laying off nine thousand workers. This time, they called him a traitor for seeking Belgian citizenship for tax avoidance.

Today, the seventy-three-year-old Parisian and his five trust-fund kids oversee LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, or just LVMH for short. The multinational corporation is a who’s who of overpriced luxury fashion and cosmetics brands, including Christian Dior, Marc Jacobs, and Sephora. Also among LVMH’s seventy holdings are a British yacht maker that markets $3 million boats and a champagne company that sells thousand-dollar bottles of bubbly encased in white gold.

Arnault’s fortune keeps climbing as he strengthens his monopoly on shit that rich people buy. LVMH dropped $3.2 billion in 2019 for luxury hotelier Belmond, which owns or manages forty-six hotels — including the only hotel within the Machu Picchu citadel in Southern Peru. Then last January, LVMH gobbled up American jeweler Tiffany & Co for a cool $15.8 billion, believed to be the biggest luxury brand acquisition ever.

During the COVID pandemic, the richer got richer than at any point in recorded history, according to the World Bank. Arnault was one of the world’s ten wealthiest men, who collectively doubled their fortunes from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion — at a rate of $15,000 per second or $1.3 billion daily. Arnault’s yacht of cash grew from $76 billion in 2020 to $188 billion just two years later.

More broadly, the global 1 percent — those with more than $1 million — now own nearly half (45.8 percent) of the world’s wealth. So what are these millionaires doing with all of their ill-gotten cash? Besides flying to space, buying private police forces, and prepping for the dystopia they helped create, they’re also purchasing the old material markers of wealth sold by Arnault’s companies, like a $20 million diamond necklace.

All things considered, Arnault’s rise is no cause for celebration. Sure, he has more refined taste than Elon Musk and isn’t taunting the Left on his new plaything Twitter, but his ascension to the throne is yet another sign that today’s Gilded Age: Part II may yet surpass the nineteenth-century original.

Arnault himself likes to cite the history of the eighteenth century. In a Forbes profile, he’s quoted as saying that he sees himself linked to the French heritage of “Versailles, to Marie Antoinette.” In that case, maybe it’s time to get the old Revolution-era Jacobin band back together. Or, at the very least, echo the French newspaper Libération, which once told Arnault in a front-page headline to “Get Lost You Rich Idiot.”