CANNES and ST. TROPEZ, France – The next time wacky US neo-conservatives start looking for an Iraq-al-Qaeda connection, they had better start looking in the French (Arab) Riviera. One of Osama bin Laden’s brothers owns a stunning villa in Cannes, at the corniche of the Paradis Terrestre – only a few meters away from Saddam Hussein’s own villa (speculation is rife on who’s going to inherit this one; Saddam’s daughters?).
The buck does not stop there. The 3,000-square-meter Villa Bagatelle is owned by a Saudi prince. Another Arab royal owns the Villa al-Ryan, which used to be in the possession of the emir of Qatar. Their neighbors include the prime minister of Jordan and the eldest son of King Fahd, who bought the Palais des Horizons and the Chateau Robert for an “incalculable” amount, according to locals.
The Arab Riviera is an ultra-deluxe gated-community gulag over the hills in – where else? – “California,” the top Cannes neighborhood. There are more (security) cameras than in a Steven Spielberg set. Walking is not allowed. Golf-carting transportation is encouraged. These lucky few Arabs living – literally – in heaven contrast with the hordes of (mostly legal) second-generation immigrants selling vegetables or Chinese knockoffs “down there” in the Frejus “Arab” market or younger ones servicing the thousands of restaurants along the Cote d’Azur.
There are no fewer than 300 real-estate developers’ offices in the Cannes region alone. In St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, the price for a square meter can easily reach US$50,000. Democratically, anyone may admire the lush photos of villas or palaces with stunning views – but prices are never on show. A proper, “grand” villa in California – at least 1,000 square meters of living quarters, with garden and pool – can easily go beyond $40 million. A “small” house sells for a cool $5 million – and its value may double in only six months.
Which major, jaded Arab monarch/politician in his right mind would want to dwell in the searing heat and the desert winds of the Middle East summer? They’d rather be sipping martinis by their infinite view pool. Away from the turning and turning of the geopolitical gyre, the French Riviera remains the Arab as well as Russian and Chinese billionaires’ favorite playground.
So George W. Bush should take a cue from the Cannes Film Festival and hold his Middle East-solution summits at the Carlton Hotel – complete with G-stringed starlets, lobster dinners washed with Cristal, free Lamborghini Diablo rides and hordes of paparazzi in heat. The effect would be devastating. Bye bye intifada, bye bye Sunni Arab muqawama: let’s go surfing the decadent, Western capitalist way. Even Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri might be tempted to drop the cave talk and join the fun.
Life in the fast lane
The wealthy French Riviera, not by accident, votes from extreme right (Jean-Marie Le Pen’s racist National Front) to downright right (French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who co-opted millions of Front voters with his muscled approach to immigration and internal security). But there are more nuanced layers to the phenomenon.
Forget about the Muslim invasion of Europe (“Horrible! They reproduce like rabbits!”claims many a retired senior citizen). In the French Riviera, Islamophobia takes a back seat to the real clash of civilizations – between the lucky few ultra-haves and the voracious, aspiring have-somethings, all of them immersed in an orgy of trivialized hyperactivity.
La Cote d’Azur in summer – azure skies every single day, no rain – is a classic case of self-indulgent Europe staring at its (tanned) bellybutton surrounded by a six-pack abdomen. A few might worry about France’s Arab foreign policy – how should it be part of a grand Euro-Mediterranean vision?
Most agree with Francophile Polish historians yelling, “Europe is not out of fashion,” still capable of resisting the “intimidation of that Russian,” President Vladimir Putin. And most definitely agree with Harvard Professor Jerry Frieden that France’s problem is the “rigidity of the labor market” – which in essence means the ultra-haves not having the power to fire aspiring have-somethings at will, just like in Britain.
Charter-fliers fresh from Liverpool or Bavaria turned into instant fried chicken (oh, the sorry ignorance of the perfect Vichy tanning cream) dream of reenacting Cary Grant and Kim Novak drinking Moet and looking cool in 1959, at the 12th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Dolce & Gabbana-clad beach vultures would rather settle for a pre- La Dolce vita style (after all, the Italian Riviera is just a five-hour bumper-to-bumper drive away), when Vittorio De Sica used to rub elbows with the stunning duo Sophia Loren and Silvana Mangano.
The question of les tables is always prominent. When in doubt, ultra-haves and aspiring have-somethings alike don’t even flinch about investing in the table gastronomique of the Martinez Hotel, where one needs a doctorate on Jacques Lacan to decipher the dish descriptions on the menu. Might as well go all the way and splurge on a few bottles of Chateau d’Yquem 1975; it certainly beats churning out an indecent $22 for a glass of iced Chardonnay on any given cafe by the Croisette.
Aspiring foxy ladies on the prowl for Arab villa owners will be frankly destabilized by not owning a Sergio Rossi python travel bag submitted to a golden Brunelleschi treatment (after all, a weekend comprises two days, and a femme fatale with two feet must wear at least six pairs of high heels, including vertiginous Sergio Rossi golden sandals draped in strass). Not to mention the face massage with L’Or de Vie by Dior, the ultra-exclusive night version of the Yves St. Laurent bag Muse (only 40 units ever produced) and that Versace microdress in laminated silk. Arab princes go absolutely wild for the whole package.
On a more relaxed front, psychiatrist Patrick Lemoine is sure to become a best-seller in the Riviera with his recently released book on the joys of getting bored. Americans are mostly baffled by this particular phenomenon – unless they are Texas blond bombshells having a ball posing for French Riviera specials of Bikini International. One year ago, the Washington Post even published a piece titled “The art of doing nothing, and nobody does it better than the French.”
Americans rather identify with French President and Jogger-in-Chief Nicolas Sarkozy, the archetypal Homo freneticus of the “new” center-right European trio (Sarkozy, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Gordon Brown).
Against a predominant, consensual hyper-activist ideology, the French Riviera counterattacks and seduces everyone – including Americans – with the joys of slow travel, which feature deep immersion in the intricacies of the art of the siesta or the art of people-watching for hours sipping Perrier with mint. This might lead to turning the workaholic’s typical burnout into a bore-out – a neologism invented by a couple of Swiss consultants (no wonder: Switzerland holds a master’s degree on boredom).
Get me to my yacht on time
The art of reaching a full bore-out comes to full fruition in St. Tropez, once the sleepy refuge of Brigitte And God Created Woman Bardot. Brigitte – driven nuts by facing her younger, out-of-this-world self in the mirror via countless 1960s paparazzi photos – still lives in seclusion at her countryside-style La Madrague digs. The lovely Vanessa Paradis and hubby Johnny Depp live in Plan-de-la-Tour, just one hour outside St. Tropez.
The aspiring have-somethings may have invaded St. Tropez as a plague of locusts – and real-estate speculation may have blemished its cool Mediterranean charm. But when it comes to the definitive hymn to the power of globalized ostentation, nothing beats making an entrance in the port by boat.
The rosy play of light in the little half-moon bay is postcard-perfect. For mere mortals, be it on a ferry or a sailboat, it’s imperative to dodge the armada of parked multimillion-dollar vessels, some equipped with their own choppers (ready to conquer Mogadishu or Baghdad?). But to the sound of “Ride of the Valkyrie” – or perhaps a sleazy Julio Iglesias standard – the ultra-haves, and only them, have the chance of parking their four-story-high behemoths right in front of the sidewalk, to the delight of a stream of gaping onlookers.
This mega-yacht catwalk is the abode of the Laysh La, the perennial Las Brisas, the Tooth Fairy, the Veni Vidi Vici, the Disco Volante, the Deja Too and the Blowsy – virtually all of them registered in the fiscal paradises of Guyana or the Cayman Islands.
But it is actually St. Raphael, a former fisherman’s port turned seaside resort 50 minutes by ferryboat from St. Tropez, that is the richest city in France by per capita value. St. Raphael could be perfectly at home in Florida or California – with the added bonus of an “Arizona” nearby (the red rocks in the Esterel forest range).
This is a retirement nirvana to business people, artisans and small-scale industrialists – doubling up as a real-estate-speculation Valhalla of Chinese proportions. “Visionaries” who bought a piece of land in the “pampa” a few years ago are now virtually in the heart of the city – and boasting a 1,000% profit.
A 120-square-meter apartment now sells for no less than $1.2 million. The secret of St. Raphael, and its surrounding upscale communities of Valescure, Agay and Boulouris, is, according to residents, a “culture-sport-security” added-value guarantee. Not by accident, St. Raphael boasts double the number of police compared with the French national average.
For all the Arab wealth on display in Cannes’s California or in St. Tropez, France’s Richistan of course is not confined to the Cote d’Azur (and after all, these Arabs don’t pay their taxes in France, they just keep secondary homes). Former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing would never contemplate the bad taste of settling into a Hariri family Arab-Lebanese-owned apartment by the Seine, like former president Jacques Chirac (buses and vans were ordered out of the way so as not to disturb the regal sleep of the Chirac couple).
Giscard lives in his own hotel particulier in the chic 16th arrondissement of Paris, just like France’s richest man (almost $40 billion, and counting), Bernard Arnault, the chairman of Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, the world’s No. 1 deluxe market conglomerate (as every Chinese counterfeiter knows), who has his own “private hotel” at the 7th arrondissement.
As for the next French billionaire generation, trans-Atlantic love is the name of the game; after all, Sarkoland loves America. Arnault’s son Antoine loves to hang out with Uma Thurman and Scarlett Johansson. As for Francois-Henri, the son of Francois Pinault, the fourth French fortune (about $18 billion), he also poached in Hollywood, marrying the sultry Latina bomb Salma Hayek.
And just as the French Riviera was in full swing, an Arab ghost made a spectacular comeback. Osama bin Laden, appearing for only 50 seconds in the latest 40-minute special delivered by al-Qaeda’s production house, Al-Sabah, blessed those happy few Allah had chosen to become martyrs. He didn’t reclaim his brother’s villa in Cannes; after all, his purpose was to stress that al-Qaeda remains alive and kicking.
Is he dead? Is he alive? Is he worth $50 million – as the US government says (the price of two modest-size villas in Cannes)? Who knows, he might even be the mysterious shadow behind the tinted windows of that light-cream Maserati Quattroporte cruising the Croisette. Quelle horreur! Perrier with mint, anyone?