Death of sociologist Michel Pinçon: he looked at the rich to understand the world

Between his retirement from and his income as CEO of EDF, Henri Proglio will receive 2.6 million euros per year. He is not the only one. In recent years the « salaries » of the bosses have soared. What do they do with such income?

Michel Pincon. These sums are insane but they are only income from activity. But these bosses also have stock options and report assets. Bernard Arnault, for example, is CEO of the LVMH group but he also owns it and as such he receives dividends. He also has income from investments which can be movable (shares) and real estate. All in all, it’s really staggering. Part of this income is invested in new financial or real estate investments to improve not the standard of living but the size of the heritage. Another goes to extremely expensive practices, at the limit of the patrimony of return and the patrimony of enjoyment. I am thinking of the two contemporary art museums that François Pinault, former CEO of the Pinault-Printemps-La Redoute group, created in Venice. They are of international standard with very valuable works and both have the size of the Museum of Modern Art of the city of Paris. François Pinault also bought a 17th century castle, La Mormaire, on the edge of the Rambouillet forest, which he restored.

In the park there are monumental statues, including one by Picasso, an installation by Richard Serra who exhibited at the Grand Palais not long ago. For its part, the LVMH group controlled by Bernard Arnault (how to distinguish between what belongs to the group and what belongs to its owner?) bought Château-Yquem in the Bordeaux vineyards. Bernard Arnault married his daughter there. The examples could be multiplied. This is what we call, inspired by Pierre Bourdieu, symbolic capital. Yquem, the great wines… it’s French culture, seniority, tradition, prestige.

And to really have power, you have to have prestige?

Michel Pincon. This wealth, which is difficult to acquire, bases power on a symbolic dimension. A stock portfolio does not provide social legitimacy. Château-Yquem or museums of contemporary art have a monetary value, but above all give a certain label. Arnault, too, embarked on the creation of a foundation devoted to art at the Jardin d’acclimatation, in the Bois de Boulogne. Why invest in such companies? They earn money, of course, and this allows them to intervene at the heart of the art market. They also give themselves the status of patrons, show their interest in culture. It is a symbolic enhancement of their person.

This money also provides extraordinary daily comfort…

Michel Pincon. It is not necessary to reach these levels of income to be released from the worries of everyday life. This is already the case, for example, of the financial director of a large company who can unload all the domestic problems on specialized personnel, who can send his children for a year to an English college. When the level of income is even higher, there are “family offices”. Organizations that are often linked to wealth management services grafted onto investment banks. They take care of all aspects of the daily life of very wealthy families, from the most common problems to organizing a stay at the Bayreuth festival or booking a seat on a plane at the last minute for New York. Because travel is frequent and multi-territoriality is systematic. It is striking when consulting the Bottin mondain. These people generally have a Parisian address, another in a holiday resort in the provinces, yet another abroad. In all these residences, guards provide security, operation and maintenance on a permanent basis. In a book, the Spirit in celebration, a title revealing their state of mind, Michel David-Weill, one of the leaders of the Lazard bank, confides that he likes all his residences very much and he adds they are beautifully decorated. An art lover, he also chairs a commission in charge of purchases for national museums.

Back to art again…

Michel Pincon. Being a patron of the arts, belonging to cultural institutions, having your name engraved in the marble of museums, at the Louvre for example… that’s how you are not Bernard Tapie.

This money gives a feeling of power?

Michel Pincon. It provides, by eliminating all material problems, an obvious serenity. But there is another more hidden form of serenity that comes from being able to acquire what with Monique Pinçon-Charlot we have called “a symbolic immortality”. Pinault has a son who took over, Arnault has his children already in the circuit, Bouygues, Lagardère are recent fortunes but whose succession is already assured. When you are in this universe, after one or two generations, you have ancestors and heirs, it is the moment of something that is beyond you. The worker or the teacher have their life, a father and a mother. But they are the only ones to maintain their memory while society keeps the memory of the Rothschilds or the David-Weills, the great industrial dynasties. A few years ago, the Wendels celebrated the 300th anniversary of the founding of their first metallurgical plant in Lorraine. They had on this occasion rented the Musée d’Orsay for an evening. Ernest-Antoine Seillière whose mother was a Wendel made a speech. All the members of the holding company that manages the Wendel property were there: at least 800 people appear in the photo taken in the large hall of the museum. In these families, we have the feeling of being out of the ordinary, we tell ourselves so, and that gives us a certain assurance. Moreover, their residences are often in buildings classified as Historic Monuments, private mansions in Paris with works of art, valuable furniture, libraries. The difference is obvious with those who were born and lived in HLMs that are imploded because they have no value. On the one hand it is forced mobility, precariousness and childhood which disappears in a cloud of dust, on the other it is a certain length of existence with the house which remains in the family and the inscription in this symbolic immortality, certainly very fallacious but psychologically soothing.

Proglio negotiated his salary 45% above that of his predecessor. How can we not have in this situation a feeling of indecency?

Michel Pincon. Perhaps by all that we have just said and the certainty of being the best. Proglio is in a universe where he feels authorized to always ask for more because he is the one who decides, he feels he has done a lot for the company. There is a form of hypernarcissism here maintained by the real difficulty of the business world, a world where there are fights, where those who win take whatever the winners can wish for. It is also an ideological effect of the single thought which wants the market to be the only regulator of economic life. The logic of the strongest wins is essential. And there is no limit.

Interview conducted by Jacqueline Sellem

Author with Monique Pinçon-Charlot of the book Les Ghettos du Gotha, how the bourgeoisie defends its spaces. Editions du Seuil, 2007, 293 pages, 19 euros.


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