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Empty palaces - French president no better than Russian oligarchs

Journalist Nabila Ramdani looks at how luxury excess is acceptable in France where the president himself can live like a billionaire

Fort de Brégançon in the Var

Emmanuel Macron spends just two weeks a year at Fort de Brégançon in the Var Pic: LUC BIANCO / Shutterstock

France is now an international hotspot for multiple-home ownership. 

Forget finding a nice little villa on the Mediterranean coast, or a pied-à-terre in Paris, tycoons want the lot – from sprawling rural estates to the finest city mansions and ski chalets, and everything in between. 

This was made abundantly clear last month when financial investigators froze the assets of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, because of his links with the war in Ukraine. 

Read more: Yachts, ski chalets, villas: France freezes €850m in Russian assets

The list was eye-popping.

Beyond superyachts and helicopters, there were no less than 12 Abramovich homes in France, most of them costing upwards of eight figures. 

These luxury piles could be added to scores more he still owns in other parts of the world, including Britain and America. 

The combined euro worth for all of them, along with seized bank cash, runs into the multi-billions.

Harry and Megan of their day

The jewel in the crown of Abramovich’s France portfolio was Château de la Croë, once the holiday home of the former King Edward VIII. 

The runaway Royal used the Cap d’Antibes summer bolthole in the 1930s after abdicating the throne of England to become the Duke of Windsor. 

Wild parties for the cream of High Society were commonplace, in between Edward and Wallis – as his American Duchess wife was known – sunbathing in the lavish gardens with cocktails in hand. 

However negative anyone’s opinion of the grasping Windsors – the Prince Harry and Meghan Markle of their day were often very unpopular indeed – at least they put Croë to some kind of positive use. 

Which is more than can be said of Mr Abramovich. He barely spent a day there, despite pushing its price beyond the €130m mark through renovations that included building a swimming pool on the roof. 

Seized villas cannot do good

Like so many of the oligarch class, the Chelsea Football Club owner saw bricks-and-mortar as a straightforward financial investment. 

The primary function of any house – somewhere safe and comfortable for people to live in – was all but ignored. 

At a time of a European housing crisis, and the tragedy of millions of displaced refugees pouring into countries such as France from the conflict in Ukraine, this is naturally viewed as scandalous. 

Under the freezing-of-assets rules, the French authorities can’t even turn the properties seized over to those in need. 

Instead, they are solely authorised to prevent them being sold, or rented out, for profit. 

Refugees in empty presidential properties?

There is little chance of a change in the law either, because the negligent ownership of sumptuous homes is in fact institutionalised in France. 

Just look at the incredible buildings the president has at his disposal, while spending hardly any time in any of them except for the Elysée Palace. 

Beyond the head of state’s official residence in Paris, there is the delightful Pavillon de la Lanterne in Versailles, and Fort de Brégançon, a medieval castle turned summer holiday complex on the Riviera.

Emmanuel Macron controversially had a pool put in to Brégançon – it was said that he didn’t want to be pictured by the paparazzi showing off his manly chest hair while sea swimming – but he still only spends a couple of weeks there in August, at most. 

Read more: Inquiry opened into drone over French President’s fort

A number of presidential properties have been sold off over the past two decades, while others are in the hands of government ministries, to be used for conferences and the like. 

But the general impression of luxury excess is still prevalent in France. 

Reform would not only do a lot to boost a sense of equality in the modern republic, but it might also convince those who are obscenely rich and shady to do their house-hunting elsewhere. 

Related articles

War in Ukraine: Russian oligarch’s €120m yacht seized in French port

We have space, time: Why we are hosting Ukrainians at our French homes

France expels six Russians suspected of spying


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