Monday, November 28, 1994

The Happiest Yuppie In Paris

Moutet's Paris: The Happiest Yuppie In Paris

The European, 28 November 1994

THE successive corruption scandals involving France's largest water and building utility, the 150 billion-franc Compagnie Générale des Eaux, have made at least one happy yuppie. This is Jean-Marie Messier, 37 and 3/4 [he'll be 38 on 13 December], youngest partner at the prestigious investment bank Lazard since 1989 and former adviser to Finance Minister Edouard Balladur in 1986-1988. Messieur has been installed last week as designated successor of the redoubtable, secretive Guy Dejouany, 73, at what may be France's highest salary, 16 million francs a year.

For 18 years Dejouany ruled as an absolute monarch over his 200,000 employee-strong empire (where he started working in 1961) from his discreet rue d'Anjou headquarters, a chequebook's throw away from the Elysee. Nobody knew his diary, not even his secretary. His personal telephone lines were scrambled by state-of-the-art military devices. Strong men were daily seen leaving his office in a sweat: Dejouany, who never held a meeting of more than three people outside his company board, played at naming favourites, hinting that he would leave them in charge when he retired, then at pitting them against one another. Under his stewardship CGE became the world leader in water treatment, but also diversified into cable and pay TV (he's the one who really got Mitterrand's old friend André Rousselet fired from Canal Plus.)

But now, as revelation after revelation of payoffs to politicians in exchange for local contracts have made Dejouany the target of several judicial inquiries, the old man had to step down. When he announced his choice of successor, the CGE board (not to mention the infighting top executives) were enraged. Messier? This chubby baby Enarque with absolutely no industrial experience and only five years in investment banking under his belt? Peugeot's Jacques Calvet, a board member, loudly threatened to resign, before bowing to the decision. Young Messier, now effectively in charge of running the company, should be formally made its president in June 1996, after the board approves the 1995 results. "We needed someone clean, not someone from inside the company, who might one day be charged with yet another corruption scandal," CGE insiders told the press.

This drew guffaws from the Paris political and business establishment. Young Messier, who has more than once been dubbed the most ambitious Frenchman of the Nineties, used to be in charge of the first big round of privatisations at the Balladur Finance ministry. The bank advising most of these privatisations was Lazard. Barely a few months after the reelection of Francois Mitterrand to the presidency, ending the first two-year cohabitation, Messier was hired by, surprise, surprise, Lazard, with unheard-of privileges, directly as a full partner (associé-gerant) aged 33, with an office significantly located next to the bank's chairman, the billionnaire Michel David-Weill.

His first job was of course to follow the smooth workings of the newly privatised companies, in direct contradiction with French law, which stipulates that civil servants are not allowed to move into private jobs directly related to their former goverment activities.

Next Messieur was sent to New York for a while, to work with the legendary Felix Rohatyn on the multi-billion franc acquisition by Groupe Schneider of Sqare D, an electrical company, snatching the fat success fees from JP Morgan's, the white-shoe Wall Street bank that had initially presented Square D to Schneider. When he came back to Paris, he was the bank's star, and David-Weilll's obvious favourite.

How does young Jean-Marie do it? "He calculates every single move," says an associate. "For instance, he dresses more modestly than your average investment banker, which usually reassures industrialists. His 17th-arrondissement flat is rented, the furniture is dowdy Napoleon III. His wife Antoinette is no socialite, she prefers to care for their three kids. He listens a lot and unlike most members of the French establishment -- to which he belongs both by background (his family once were partners in the aviation firm Messier-Latecoère) and by right as an Inspecteur des Finances, one of the top 5 of his ENA class -- he never shows off. Balladur likes young men who can keep secrets and he called Messier 'as safe as a tumb'. David-Weill, too, likes people who can keep secrets. Messier knows where most Establishment bodies are buried."

REMEMBER this figure next time French farmers are out in the streets burning prefectures and dumping artichauts: according to the highly reliable INSEE (Institut National des Statistiques et Etudes Economiques), the average French farm income went up 11.5% in 1994, the CAP's second year over 4 times current inflation. Meat farmers made 12% more than last year; winegrowers took in a whopping 40% and large cereal and grain growers (usually accused of reaping all the benefit from demonstrations organised by poorer small farmer) 3% only.

© Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 1994.

Sunday, June 12, 1994

The recession hits the Prix de Diane

The Prix de Diane is hit by the recession, discovers Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in Chantilly

You really know there's a recession on in France when the House of Hermès - of FF40,000 ostrich skin 'Kelly' handbags and FF1,450 horsey print silk scarves fame - decide they won't hold a luncheon this year at the June 13th Prix de Diane, which they have been sponsoring for yonks, my dear, and will give their guests PICNIC BOXES instead.

This, in Paris, is the equivalent of Royal Ascot going grunge. Especially since I'm told the vintage car competition, Le Gratin Du Panier, won't happen either. (Usually, when the Right came back to power, people showed off the 1937 Rollers they'd been hiding from the Socialist taxman, surely not the other way round?)

In past years the Hermès tent village, erected right in the middle of the delightful Chantilly racecourse, has been host to all sort of suitable charities, of the kind that mix properly with morning coats and exotic ladies' hats. (The year before last, the late lamented Audrey Hepburn showed up in her UNICEF ambassadorial role, and everyone sighed, remembering her Cecil-Beaton-designed black and white Ascot outfit in My Fair Lady: the perfect woman in the perfect place.)

For Chantilly in mid-June IS the perfect place, and you can bet Parisians toffs will bravely rough it and make do with sandwiches. It will be the spirit of the Blitz again, or perhaps the spirit of the Blitzkrieg, or Dunkirk if it rains. But the show will go on.

You notice I haven't mentioned horses yet. That's because, except for a handful of owners and serious punters, horses do not count at all at the Prix de Diane, unlike at the Arc de Triomphe in September, where they get serious about these things. The Diane is all about having a nice garden party with about 1,500 PLU, showing off the most outlandish hats (having acquired Motsch, France's wonderfully fuddy-duddy answer to Lock's, Hermès now has a stake in that, too), drinking lots of bubbly, being photographed for Point de Vue and Vogue, and airkissing six times per minute people you pretend to be astonished to meet here: 'Mais tu es là! Quelle surprise!'

One shows up around 11:30 a.m. or noon, having ineffectually sworn to be on time to avoid the traffic on the A1 from Paris, and having been delayed by 1) the sudden disappearance of one glove, 2) finding out that you don't fit your morning coat anymore to the tune of a stone or more, 3) having lost one of the children after having finally got them all properly dressed up, or/and 4) losing your way when trying to bypass the traffic on the autoroute by taking the Survilliers shortcut. (DO NOT park too near the enclosure, because it means you'll be stuck behind the poshest traffic jam of the year when you try to make your getway at the end of the day.)

The Prix de Diane - devoted to Spain this year, with the possible attendance of members of the much-admired Spanish Royal Family - is definitely the high point of the Paris Season. The word evokes a series of parties in the English tradition: teas, little dinner-dances, picnics al fresco, opera outings, garden-parties, country fetes, culminating with the big May balls (in June.) This charming picture, relentlessly fostered by every PR agency in town, belongs to another, gentler age. Two-thirds at least of any of those parties supposed to constitute The Season are in fact commercial affairs, sponsored by anyone from a champagne house (the Carré Rive Gauche Antiques Fair) to a hotel chain (the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp.)

A certain amount of social editing is therefore required before throwing oneself into the bop till you drop scene. You can live without showing yourself at either Auteuil or Deauville (it is actually strongly advised to avoid Deauville altogether), but nobody feels like giving the Diane a miss.

At the time of writing, it was still uncertain whether the traditional evening cocktail party in the Prince de Condé's splendid stables - where Milos Forman shot the first duelling scene in Valmont, and which look a lot better than the château de Chantilly itself, the latter having been rebuilt in the XIXth century while the stables are the original Louis XIV ones.

Having recently gone public on the Paris OTC Bourse, no doubt Hermès feel they can't give their shareholders the feeling they're wasting their future dividends. Perhaps this will comfort at last the HSP (short for Haute Société Protestante) families who've been owning the company for 150 years, and may have felt a bit uneasy at their own success during the Roaring Eighties: certainly the company resisted going big, even if it means you have to wait six months for any handbag that doesn't happen to be available right now in the boutique's windows in the colour of your choice.

Such considerations probably won't affect the success of the party next Sunday 13th. Tips: it's a lot more chic to picnic alongside the racecourse than behind the main tent, even (or especially) if this means you'll be in everyone's way. DO bring a plaid blanket (or a red-and-gold one to make the Spanish Ambassador happy). DON'T take Cristal Roederer bubbly in your hamper because the clear bottle tends to get warm faster than the dark Dom Pérignon or Krug ones. (Additional points this year for bringing vintage Rioja instead, but with the sun you may get very drunk very fast. Remember it's not done to be sloshed before at least the second race.)

DO take off your shoes to walk on the grass if you feet are killing you by mid-afternoon (last year, Hermine de Clermont-Tonnerre set the tone by actually spending the last two races slumped on the grass with her two fet in two champagne buckets filled with ice cubes.) DON'T go alongside the enclosure ropes to throw brioche crumbs at the hoi polloi massed there, making remarks such as 'Mon Dieu qu'ils ont l'air pauvre!' (also heard last year).

DO watch out for the green badges (meaning Jockey Club) on the best men. DO NOT go and sit on the Jockey's stands, on the flimsy grounds that they're about the only place from which one can see a horse for a split second however, since you're likely to be thrown out politely but firmly by one of the members of this arch-elite (who regard the rest of the scene as rather mixed). DO go and gatecrash the little sponsored dos in various tents: there will be more free drinks, and you're the public they're trying to impress anyway. DO wangle as many extra tickets as possible: 'The secret is to take several friends, so you have your own little party inside the party,' says Dominique de Lastours, who being a 28-year-old personable Marquis is something of an expert social butterfly on the Paris social scene. Dominique and his friends do gate-crash "but we behave a lot better than the English gate-crashers. We never break anything and we keep very polite. Sometimes, I assure you, we set a better tone than the actual guests."

I have a soft spot for Dominique, whom I've seen at the best (or the most publicized) parties. The Prix de Diane is a welcome relief from his usual haunt, Castel's, he says, "because the food is a lot better and the women are older." I also suspect the formidable PR women in charge of things actually let him in when they haven't actually got him on their lists. It's difficult enough to get the right mix as it is. When the Lebanese middleman Samir Traboulsi was indicted for insider trading three years ago - he is to take the stand in the Paris courts the very week of the Prix de Diane - one of them wailed to me: 'This is a disaster. His wife was always the first to send me her cheque. She'd buy whole tables of 10 and 12 guests for the charity luncheon, and pay immediately. I'll miss her.' So shall we, digging into our picnic boxes.

© Copyright The European & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1994

Monday, May 2, 1994

The Saigon Kid

Moutet's Paris: The Saigon Kid

The European, 2 May, 1994

An amusing photograph is making the rounds in Paris these days. It shows a rather surly young man, black hair parted in the middle, dressed in a wrinkled shirt and sawn-off denims uncovering white knees, lounging in the seat of a bicycle rickshaw in the middle of a Saigon boulevard.

This is none other than Romain Balladur, 24, the youngest of our PMs four sons. This apple of his father's eye has mysteriously managed, after graduating from ISG, a second-string Paris business school, to be posted for his military service as a VSNE (Volontaire pour le Service National en Entreprise), or business trainee, for the water and construction conglomerate Lyonnaise des Eaux-Dumez.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that a recent parliamentary report on campaign finance in the last General Election showed Lyonnaise-Dumez to have been the third largest contributor overall to candidates of whatever political stripe, even though its chairman, Jérôme Monod, is a card-carrying member of the Gaullist RPR.

Balladur the younger alighted in the former French colonial capital last November, I'm told, and set up his quarters at the Rex, one of the city's better hotels. Since then his activities have been mysterious. He has been having a wonderful time, members of the local French expatriate community will tell you, not very helpfully.

In an interesting coincidence, young Romain's tracks in Saigon and Hanoi crossed those of another famous scion of French officialdom, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, formerly his father's African affairs adviser at the Elysée palace, now a consultant for Lyonnaise-Dumez's arch-rival, the mammoth Compagnie Générale des Eaux (also a generous contributor to many an electoral campaign). Having managed to pull off a contract to build a tubings factory near Hanoi for CGE, Jean-Christophe couldn't help a dig when asked about his young rival: "Don't confuse us, please. I'm involved in serious work!"

IT WILL be even more difficult than usual setting up an appointment with any Parisian of note between 12 and 23 May next: everyone who's anyone has managed to wangle, earn or steal some sort of assignment at the Cannes Film Festival, enabling them to hop South for at least three days of sun, screenings, galas, and gossip at the Hotel Majestic bar (tip: the Carlton is for Hollywood types).

One celeb however will be conspicuously absent from the opening star-studded gala dinner, traditionally given by the French Ministry of Culture: Jack Lang, the long-serving, charismatic and extremely popular former Culture minister under Mitterrand's both terms, has been informed by his lackluster successor Jacques Toubon's secretary that he was not welcome to dinner on the 12. News of this ham-handed slight went round Paris like lightning, with comments overwhelmingly detrimental to the hapless Toubon. Had he wanted to emphasize his (legitimate) fear of being upstaged by his predecessor, the gossip goes, he couldn't have gone about it in better way.

Meanwhile Jack Lang and his wife Monique have booked a suite at the Hotel du Cap-Eden Roc, like Bel-Air royalty, for the duration of the Festival, and will be among the guests of honour at the even more glittering party given on the following day, Friday 13th May, by the unsuperstitious Claude Berri (of Germinal and Jean de Florette fame) for his existentialist, Patrice Chéreau-directed megaproduction of Alexandre Dumas's La Reine Margot, starring Isabelle Adjani. Nobody in Paris doubts that Jack and Monique will be better seated than Toubon and his wife Lise

WOULD YOU willingly spend an evening reading 260 pages of statistics? Well, possibly, if they all have to do with Frenchwomen. Or so bets Agnes Michaux, a sociologist with an appreciable sense of humour, who has just come up with a book gathering every fact, poll, figure, statistic, test, market study, and assorted theses devoted to the female of the French species. The result is of course riveting (albeit better absorbed in small instalments.) Did you know that 7% of Frenchwomen have already made love in a lift? That 22% are bosses of their company? That 87% define the ideal man as "the one who makes me laugh"? (but that 84% also define him as owning a building society savings account large enough to buy them a house.) That 58% of them believe in astrology? (but 68% believe in Paradise.) That 27% would have liked to have been born in the aristocracy? That they account for 35% of the French homeless? That 3% would have liked to be Francois Mitterrand's mistress? That 26% keep their bank account separate from their spouses? That 91% say they're happy? And that 0%, not a single one, would leave their place in a liferaft to Madonna?

METEOROLOGICAL studies have just proven that Paris, the most compact city in Europe (and the one with the largest population density) enjoys a specific microclimate with temperatures 6°C warmer on average compared to its immediate surroundings. This is caused by the heat radiated by the city's buildings and population, but also by Paris's waterproof quality (most of it is covered in asphalt, stone or zinc, so that rainwater flows straight into gutters and sewers instead of slowly evaporating in the air as it does in cities with more public and private parks and gardens.) The heat of the city also repels rain in the cold season: in the past twenty years the average annual raintime was 840 hours at Orly airport, as opposed to 529 hours only in the Parc Montsouris weather observatory.

THE PARISIAN couture world is waiting with bated breath for 18 May, when Paris's Tribunal de Commerce pronounces its ruling on the bitter fight pitting Yves Saint Laurent against the American designer, Ralph Lauren, whom the Frenchman accuses of having plagiarized one of his designs, and is suing for 5 million francs. Sides are being taken, self-appointed goodwill ambassadors spend hours on transatlantic phone calls; even US Ambassador Pamela Harriman has been drawn into the battle between the two rag-trade primadonnas.

Ralph Lauren, who is countersuing YSL supremo Pierre Bergé for defamation for 1 million francs, has already sold 123 of his thousand-dollar black sleeveless tuxedo-cut evening dresses, "the exact copy, minus the qulity," Bergé sneers, of a FF140,000 ($25,000) couture model from YSLs 1970 winter collection. Perhaps significantly, the company withdrew the model from its racks the minute Saint Laurent sued. (In 1992-93 YSL had shown the dress again in its Rive gauche ready-to-wear collection.)

Respectively standing in each corner, watched over like prizefighters by huddles of protective lawyers, two top models wearing the two dresses were in turns sent sashaying in the narrow courtroom to demonstrate the fraud, or absence thereof, last Friday. "The Saint Laurent dress is obviously more beautiful, but that can't influence my ruling," Judge Madeleine Cotello remarked before retiring.

© Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 1994.

Friday, March 18, 1994

The Renault Blues (and Was De Gaulle A Royalist?)

Moutet's Paris: The Renault Blues (and Was De Gaulle A Royalist?)

The European, 18 March, 1994

Renault's boss Louis Schweitzer, the quiet Protestant Polytechnicien who used to be chief of staff to Socialist PM Laurent Fabius (and is a direct descendent of legendary Dr Albert Schweitzer), has cause to feel sore these days. First of all, his long-planned merger with Volvo, the ailing Swedish carmakers, was botched at the last minute. The jittery, privately-owned Swedes left their French bride standing at the altar after our new Minister for Industry Gérard Longuet's undiplomatic gesticulations, insisting to announce and sign the new contract himself, thereby showing how little the French government believes in the independence of the companies it controls.

This cost Renault, in addition to a massive loss of face, hundreds of millions of francs in fees to their investment bankers, the arch-establishment Lazard Frères. (The Lazard partner who drew up the contract, énarque François Polge de Combret, a former aide to President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, is also said to have included, with Giscard-like arrogance, clauses leaving the Swedes in casual ignorance as to the French government's golden shares.)

Secondly, Schweitzer, who thought he would preside over the Renault privatisation, now awaits to be sacked on 22 May, the date at which he could reasonably have expected his mandate to be renewed. (The company is comfortably in the black and the entire Renault range of cars is a success, to the extent that the R21 is now the best-selling foreign car in Germany.) Longuet, a naive soul, was all in favour.

Yet instead of Renault, the government will next put the loss-making Bull computers company on the block, even if it means flogging it off at bargain basement prices to IBM: Edouard Balladur has decided that no Socialist could possibly have the power to set up a noyau dur, the tightly-knit group of influential shareholders which prevent large French corporations from being taken over. Instead, Schweitzer is currently being enticed to accept the chairmanship of SNCF, the national railways, which has posted losses of FF 10Bn last year, is overstaffed, strike-ridden, under attack from the Greens for its projected TGV-Provence, and has just failed miserably to introduce its new reservations system, Socrates. Schweitzer's qualifications, you are told in Paris, is that he has always collected model electric trains and of course that he's a Fabiusien.

POOR Jacques Delors is rumoured to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. At the very time when he is being pressed to run for the presidency by a wide majority of left-wingers, who believe he can attract enough votes from the centre to win in 1995, his strong-willed daughter, former employment minister Martine Aubry, has put her foot down. Aubry has a good shot to become France's first woman president in 2002, and reportedly told her father that his taking the top job would be damaging to her own career (she would hate the likely suspicions of nepotism). The mousy Madame Delors herself, a bespectacled, unfashionable woman who may not relish the perspective of living in the Elysée glass-house, is said to have sided with her daughter, telling the beleaguered Delors that it was ''Martine's turn.''

WAS General de Gaulle a Royalist? So says Henri, Comte de Paris, 85, the pretender to the throne of France, who for years told intimates (and not-so-intimates) how Le General really intended to make him his successor in 1965.

The Comte prefers to underline that he's descended from Louis XIV younger brother, Philippe, Duc d'Orléans, than from France's last reigning King (and first Constitutional monarch), Louis-Philippe, called ''the regicide'' by most of his family since he voted the death of his cousin Louis XVI in 1793.

Barred from living on French soil by an 1886 Bill of Exile repealed only in 1950, Henri de Paris fought in the Foreign Legion during the Second World War, and finally came back to France with his family, soon to be sought out, says he, by General de Gaulle. They started meeting regularly over lunch, a habit which didn't stop with de Gaulle's return to power in 1958. The Comte claims de Gaulle had in mind for him a scheme not unlike Franco's high-handed restoration of Juan-Carlos de Borbon in Spain - but that the General's entourage almost coerced him into standing a second time. Surviving Gaullists guffaw at this. One didn't coerce de Gaulle, they say, adding that the Comte would have believed anything.

Now the Comte has published in book form his entire correspondence with de Gaulle (Dialogue sur la France, éditions Fayard), as well as what he claims to be exact transcripts of their conversations. The result is, how shall one put it, embarrassing.

The conversations show de Gaulle discussing everything from Algerian independence to the Fifth Republic Constitution with the Comte. The letters are considerably sparer, to the extent that the Comte has had to include absolutely every single piece of paper that ever circulated between them: bread-and-butter letters, Christmas cards, condolences, congratulations for the Comte's thirteen children's marriages, cover- and thank-you notes, stiffies from long-forgotten State dinners at the Elysée (robe longue, décorations), transcripts of telephone calls between de Gaulle's and the Comte's private secretaries, opinion pieces the Comte wrote for his own political newsletter and sent to the Elysée, everything is grist to his mill to fill up some 200 widely-spaced pages.

The most interesting revelation is no doubt that the General usually signed off with l'hommage de mon fidèle devouement, while the Comte never failed to conclude as votre affectionné, Henri., which I can't help believing must have sounded to the General as a deplorable instance of familiarity.

HOWEVER ungallant this sounds, it's hard not to notice that as his ratings plunge in the polls, Edouard Balladur seems to have gained the few extra pounds that cause his beautiful, made-to-measure Henry Poole Savile Row suits to strain at the seams. In his five years in Opposition, preparing for his current job with amazing determination (and a full-time staff of half a dozen political advisers), the sweet-toothed Balladur lost over 10 kilos in order to look younger on the day of his projected appointment as PM, a remarkable achievement for a man of 60 whose favourite pudding is a heavenly confection of whipped cream, chocolate and chestnut mousse called a Mont-Blanc from the renowned rue de Rivoli tea-room Angelina's. Vowing he'd never regain his flab, Balladur intrepidly had all his pinstripes, herringbone tweeds, exquisite Prince of Wales checks and heather mixture sports jackets flown to London to be taken in. Considering the price (some 2,000 for a coat, a decent shirt and two pairs of trousers) of a single Henry Poole outfit suitable for the nattiest man in France, the PM now has what might be called a considerable vested interest in staying popular and keeping off the gratification food.

© Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 1994.