French billionaires top list for world’s richest men and women

The world’s richest man and the world’s richest woman are - for the first time ever - both French, according to the 2023 ranking by Forbes.

French billionaires top list for world's richest men and women
Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, and Bernard Arnault. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT and Eric PIERMONT / AFP)

“For the first time in the history of the ranking, the richest man and woman in France are also the richest in the world. A double performance that testifies to the strength of the French economy despite the successive crises that our country is going through, directly or indirectly,” Forbes France said in a press release, as it announced the list.

Forbes listed a total of 43 billionaires in France, including seven women, while there are 2,640 billionaires worldwide, according to Forbes’ calculations. 

The top 25 richest people in the world are worth a combined US $2.1 trillion. That figure is down some US $200 billion from the top 25’s value in 2022, as two-thirds of those on the list lost wealth.

Bernard Arnault 

The world’s richest man is Bernard Jean Etienne Arnault, age 74, best known as the CEO of luxury goods company LVHM.

Back in 2022, Arnault was third on the Forbes list behind Twitter and Tesla boss Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos but he overtook both in December.

Although his rise to the top of the list was helped by Musk’s public destruction of the value of Twitter, LVMH  – which includes luxury brands Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Tiffany & Co – added US $53 billion to Arnault’s wealth last year.

His net fortune is currently US $211 billion, Forbes said, although it has been reported that he had proposed reorganising his holding company so his five children each had an equal share, meaning that his time at the top of the list may be limited.

Like a lot of people on this list, Arnault had a bit of help from his parents in getting started on the road to riches.

Born in the northern French city of Roubaix, he joined his father’s public works building company at the age of 22 and then persuaded his dad to move into real-estate development. After some time in the US, Arnault returned to the family firm, this time instituting a drastic reorganisation and diversifying into luxury brands like Christian Dior.

“My father was surprised when I went to see him saying: ‘We’re going to redirect the family group and try to invest in something more promising, Christian Dior’,” the businessman recalled recently on Radio Classique.

Since then he has consolidated the empire and added more high-end brands, as well as moving into media companies, something he describes as “more on the patronage side”.

He generally shuns the limelight, and sold his private jet when environmental groups started tracking their use (you won’t see him on the train though, he still uses a jet but now he leases one).

The 2016 satirical documentary “Merci Patron !” (Thank you Boss!) by filmmaker and now politician François Ruffin, tells the story of a community in northern France left devastated when the boss (Arnault) shuts down the local factory and moves production to Asia. 

Françoise Bettencourt Meyers

The world’s richest woman (and 11th on the world’s richest people list) is one who is unlikely to be well-known outside France. The 69-year-old Françoise Bettencourt Meyers is reportedly worth US $80.5 billion.

Like Arnault, she was clever enough to be born into wealth – she is the heiress of the cosmetics giant L’Oréal. She has topped the Forbes rich list for women since 2019 – her mother Liliane Bettencourt was top of the list before her. 

Born in the exclusive Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Bettencourt Meyers describes herself as a businesswoman, philanthropist, writer and pianist.

Her mother Liliane became the centrepiece of the scandal that led to the corruption trial of ex president Nicolas Sarkozy – the elderly lady, who was possibly senile at the time, had been donating money to campaign funds that were not properly accounted for.

L’Oréal was founded in 1909 by French pharmacist Eugene Schueller, an enthusiastic supporter of French fascist and anti-Semitic groups who after World War II stood trial for collaboration with the Nazi occupiers.

and the best of the rest . . . 

2 Elon Musk

Musk’s takeover of Twitter, and the chaos that followed, saw Musk’s wealth plunge US $37 billion in 12 months. The South African is still worth US $180 billion, according to Forbes’ figures, mainly – apparently – because of SpaceX.

3 Jeff Bezos

The former Amazon CEO saw his personal wealth dip US $57 billion in 2022 because of the falling value of his Amazon shares, but he’s still valued at US $114 billion, a fortune he’s eating into due to his philanthropy – not to mention going into space and buying a $500 million superyacht…

4 Larry Ellison

Buying a US $173 million home in Florida can’t have hit the 78-year-old tech entrepreneur and former Tesla board member too hard in the wallet, with Forbes calculating his net value at US €107 billion. He also owns the Hawaiian island of Lanai – which is where he lives.

5 Warren Buffet

The doyen of the upper echelons of Forbes’ rich list, the 92-year-old investor has a net value of US $106 billion and is a go-to financial expert for the US government, who consulted him about possible banking issues following the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in March.

6 Bill Gates

It takes a long time to give away your fortune. The mind behind Microsoft and his former wife still have US $104 billion to work through in the next 25 years via their Gates Foundation. They are planning to up their spending with the intention of winding it down in 25 years – but Gates is also working with Microsoft-backed OpenAI, which is behind the ChatGPT AI that a lot of people are talking about.

7 Michael Bloomberg

We dip below the US $100 billion threshold at last, for Michael Bloomberg the 81-year-old co-founder of the financial, software, data, and media company that bears his name. Bloomberg is worth a meagre US $94.5 billion on Forbes’ numbers.

8 Carlos Slim Helú 

The 83-year-old head of Latin-American mobile phone company América Móvil saw his personal wealth jump US $12 billion in 2022, to US $93 billion.

9 Mukesh Ambani

Asia’s richest person comes in at nine on Forbes’ list, with a personal wealth estimated at US $83.4 billion, from his multi-interest Reliance Industries, which has fingers in oil to telecoms interests. Three of his children are in key roles as financial experts wonder about the 65 year old’s succession.

10 Steve Ballmer

Being involved with Microsoft has its advantages, clearly. Former CEO Ballmer, now best known for his ownership of NBA side the LA Clippers, is in Forbes’ top 10, with an estimate net worth of $80.7 billion. He’s suffered – for a given value of ‘suffered’ – because declining value of Microsoft shares mean his $10 billion less well off than last year.

If you’re wondering, vaguely, where other well-known billionaires are on Forbes’ list: Google’s Larry Page is 12th, Meta (Facebook to most of us) boss Mark Zuckerberg is 16th; and Gautam Adani is 24th – having been the world’s third richest person on January 24th, according to Forbes’ metrics. His estimated wealth has fallen from nearly US $126 billion to US $47.2 billion since then. Proof that wealth – even super-wealth – can be fleeting.

In France, and out of the world’s top 25, François Pinault, founder of the luxury goods group Kering is the next richest person; then the brothers Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, owners of the Chanel fashion house.

Emmanuel Besnier, the boss of Lactalis is next – and the first of the French mega-rich not in the luxury and beauty sector. 

Meanwhile, Xavier Niel and Patrick Drahi, owners of Free and SFR, are both down in the ranking as the 18th and 22nd richest French billionaires.

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EXPLAINED: How to get a mobile phone contract in France

This is one of the first administrative steps you will need to handle after moving to France, here's what to expect.

EXPLAINED: How to get a mobile phone contract in France

If you are planning to spend extended time in France, you will likely want to set up a French mobile phone (cell phone) contract. 

Having a French phone number can be crucial when organising apartment visits, signing up for certain subscriptions, and setting up utilities bills in your French home.

Keep in mind that if you want to use your mobile phone from your home country, you will need to verify that it is unlocked and compatible with a new SIM card. You can check this with your previous provider. 

The main operators

There are four main cell phone service operators in France, Bouygues Telecom, Free, Orange and SFR. 

There are also some smaller operators that might offer less expensive plans, such as Prixtel or La Poste Mobile. 

Orange is often touted as the best telephone operator in France, and it is one of the world’s leading telecommunications companies with over 266 million clients across the world.

In France, however, Orange technically comes in second place to SFR for 4G coverage across the territory. According to data from France’s national frequency agency (ANFR), SFR covers 95 percent of the country with 4G access, while Orange and Bouygues both cover 94 percent and Free covers 92 percent.

As for 5G coverage, which began in 2020 in France, there is still a lot of room for improvement. In June 2023, Free had deployed the most 5G antennas, with 16,644 across the country. Bouygues came in second place, having set up 9,942. As for SFR and Orange, they came in third and fourth place, with 8,936 and 6,267 antennas respectively.

That being said, those figures only show antennas constructed – Orange had still activated the most 5G sites. 

How do they compare in price?

When it comes to price, the main four mobile phone operators keep costs similar. For 100 GB of data, as of September 2023, Orange offered a monthly deal of €16.99 for the first year, and then €31.99 after 12 months.

As for Bouygues and SFR, for a phone plan (forfait) with 100 GB of data you could expect to pay €15.99 per month fo the first year, and then €30.99 afterwards.

Free did not have a plan offering 100 GB as of September 2023, but its closest option offered 120 GB for €12.99 per month for the first year, and then €19.99 afterwards.

For plans with at least 200GB of data, you would pay more. Orange offered one for €32.99 for the first year and then €44.99 later on, Bouygues and SFR offered similar deals with €31.99 a year and €44.99 after 12 months.

Meanwhile, Free offered 250 GB for €19.99.

Keep in mind that you can also choose a ‘sans engagement’ plan, which means even if you sign a contract you can cancel it at the end of the month. 

Many phone contracts will be ‘avec engagement’ (or just engagement). This usually means that for a specified period of time –  typically one year – you pay the discounted price and then after that you may pay a higher price but you can cancel when you’d like to.

Beware that with these types of plans, if you try to cancel before the engagement period is finished, you could be asked to pay the remaining fees.

The other differences between contracts will depend on whether they allow you to use the service outside of France, and whether they charge a SIM card activation fee (for example – SFR charges €10).  

Some plans offer discounted rates for those who also use their service for internet or cable. 

Do I need a permanent address or French bank account to set up a plan?

It depends on the company. As of 2023, Free was one of the cell service operators that allowed clients to purchase a new SIM card using just a credit or debit card with one of their kiosks. 

For this purchase, only a valid bank card and email address were required. 

However, other cell service operators tend to require at least some of the following: a valid proof of identity (eg. passport), address in France (eg. utility bill or lease), or a French bank account for payment. 

What if I am visiting for a short/ defined period?

If you are travelling for a longer period of time it might work out cheaper to turn off your phone data and buy a pre-paid SIM or E-SIM card in France.

In order to get a pre-paid SIM card, you will need your passport or proof of identity (drivers’ licences do not count).

Keep in mind that you will not be able to use your normal phone number with the new SIM card in, but will be able to access your internet enabled messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook and iMessage. Your phone will need to be ‘unlocked’ (ask your carrier about whether yours is) in order to put a new SIM card in.

You can find more information with The Local’s tips guide for how visitors can avoid roaming charges.

READ MORE: How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting France

How can I cancel a French phone contract?

Prior to cancelling, you should again verify whether you are sous engagement (under contract) and if so, for how long. 

As of September 2023, it has been a legal requirement for companies to offer ‘cancellation in under three clicks’ directly on their websites. This would be done in your online space.

Your operator has 10 working days to cancel the contract once you have made the request. 

Some phone services might allow you to cancel by calling as well, but if you want to be entirely certain that your cancellation request has been sent and received you should send a lettre recommandée

READ MORE: Lettre recommandée: Why you need them and how to send them in France

What if I want to keep a phone number in my home country?

Many foreigners living in France want to maintain a phone number in their home country, perhaps to verify dual-factor authorisations or receive banking information.

Some opt for services like ‘Google Voice’ to port their existing phone number. It is advised to do this prior to moving to France.