Lunch with the FT: Xavier Niel

Not many people get to have lunch with Xavier Niel. “Each week,” explains the French telecoms billionaire, “I try to have three lunches with my children, one working lunch, and one lunch with mates.”

Niel, sometimes described as “the French Steve Jobs”, is worth around €6bn and co-owns newspaper Le Monde. However, the moment he walks into Senderens, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Paris, you spot that he isn’t a card-carrying member of the French elite. A touch overweight, unshaven, tieless, in a rumpled white shirt and with long black hair swept back, he isn’t instantly surrounded by fawning staff. Indeed, throughout our lunch, the waiters will show no sign of ever having seen him before, though he’s been coming here for 20 years.

In insiders’ Paris, Niel is a proud outsider: “un self-made man” (as the French say), from an unlovely Parisian suburb, who started his entrepreneurial career as a teenager in the 1980s with sex chat sites, and who never studied beyond high school. At this low point for France’s international reputation, here comes Niel, whose rise symbolises a different country. He has an outsider’s view of France’s problems – which he thinks he can help solve.

He sits down, looks me in the eye, and beams as if genuinely elated to meet me. I ask how he chose the restaurant. “It’s 50 metres from my office, so from laziness,” he says with a chuckle. “You used to have to wear a suit here, now you don’t, so that’s better.” He orders a Diet Coke. I’ve started with water but am hoping to turn this into a boozy and revealing meal. Niel had initially refused my invitation to lunch, pleading poor English, but relented when he heard we’d be speaking French. “I have a very, very, very, very bad accent,” he laughs, breaking briefly into English.

A waiter arrives with a complimentary dish, some sort of sweet potato with courgettes but Niel barely notices the food and keeps talking in his top-speed French. “France didn’t obstruct me but it didn’t help me either,” is how he describes his rise. Now 45, he grew up in Créteil, just east of Paris. His mother was an accountant, while his father spent 15 years studying everything from law to medicine. When Niel was 14, his Dad gave him a toy that changed his life: a ZX81, the British computer developed by Clive Sinclair. “Mr Sinclair! Sir Sinclair!” exults Niel. “It was something magical: something that did whatever I wanted. And I think there was my Dad’s love of computing and electronics. Perhaps Freud could say something about that.”

Crucially, Niel, who turned out to be a gifted computer programmer, was lucky enough to live in the one country that in the 1980s had developed a proto-internet: Minitel, invented by French engineers. The Minitel terminal, attached to a telephone line, allowed users to do simple things such as send each other messages.

“That’s how I started,” says Niel. “First I made software for all the big French groups that used Minitel. Then one day I did it for myself.” In his teens, he headed for where the money was: sex chat sites, known as “Minitel rose”, or pink Minitel. On leaving school, he also bought into brick-and-mortar sex shops. Niel emphasises his programming origins, something he shares with Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. “They also made their own product. They didn’t hire someone to do it, they weren’t just marketing men. Listen,” he adds, “I think I’m much less brilliant than they are: I’m a little French entrepreneur. I once said, ‘Steve Jobs is the American Xavier Niel,’ but that was humour.”

Waiters are hovering. What does Niel like to eat? “Everything, I like everything!” I suggest the elaborate tasting menu. “I think we’d only get out of here at 5pm,” says Niel. “And it’s heavy. Do you want to make me fat?” Instead, we both decide to start with a wild mushroom fricassée, after which Niel goes for the roast sea bass (“super”) and I for vanilla-flavoured open ravioli with lobster. “A little wine?” asks the waiter, but Niel says: “I don’t drink alcohol.” So I limit myself to a glass of white Languedoc.

Some in France thought Minitel was the future; Niel was shrewder. In 1993, he founded WorldNet, France’s first internet service provider. Nine years later, his company Iliad launched the “Freebox”, an ingenious set-top box that brought internet, TV and telephone into your home. A monthly package cost just €29.99, undercutting competitors. There was a hiccup in 2004 when Niel was briefly jailed after a four-year judicial investigation into one of his businesses; he received a two-year suspended sentence and a €250,000 fine for embezzling about €200,000 from some sex shops he co-owned. (“I did stupid things, I paid for them,” he has said.)

Mostly, though, the ascent has been dizzying. Last year Free, a subsidiary of Iliad, became France’s fourth mobile operator. Niel staged an Apple-like press conference, called rival operators a “racket” and promised to “cut prices in half”. Free’s basic mobile package currently costs only €19.99 a month. Martin Bouygues, the billionaire who runs Free’s rival and France’s third largest mobile network Bouygues Telecom, sniffed, “I have no intention of letting the gypsies on to my chateau’s lawns”, whereupon Niel, a Jobsian master of marketing, sent a publicity truck to Bouygues headquarters plastered with the words, “We are not gypsies.”

Free’s competitors have grumbled that Niel, by undercutting their margins, forced them to cut jobs. Niel dismisses the complaint: “If a bakery opens in a street in London, will the baker opposite tell the newspapers to say, ‘Oh là là, I’ve had to sack workers’?” Chewing his fricassée, he adds: “My greatest point of pride is that last year we gave the French €2bn in purchasing power. Each French person, I gave €40 through my work.”

Iliad’s market capitalisation has risen more than tenfold since 2004 to €10bn. (Niel owns about 60 per cent of the company.) If his methods work in France, why not go global? Niel explains: “Telecoms is a national business. There isn’t a European market. There’s no Telecom Italia in France. Look at our difficulties getting a mobile phone licence in France. If we hadn’t been French, it would have been impossible.”

And so Niel plays on the French elite’s terrain. How does he find the elite? Niel tries to describe their mindset: “You went to the same school. Your parents knew each other. On all these paths, you’ve been among yourselves. And among yourselves, nobody wants to upset anyone. If you get on well together, you’re not going to break the price of mobile phones. Why lower your margins? You’re not going to quarrel among yourselves.”

He diagnoses elite “cronyism”. Most French business leaders, he says, “are heirs, who frequent the same circles, or were given their posts directly or indirectly by the political powers. Then there’s a very egotistical remuneration. And they generally don’t create great things. Look at the French stock market: in the CAC 40 [France’s 40 largest listed companies], you have only one company – Gemalto, which makes smart cards – that’s under 30 years old. In very few countries would you find this.”

The French elite took a blow last month when it emerged that budget minister Jerôme Cahuzac had a secret Swiss bank account. “They think that if you make the rules, you’re not subject to them,” Niel says of the affair.

Surely Niel himself by now, like Jobs or Zuckerberg, has joined the establishment? He denies the charge: “I don’t belong to any circle. My friends are ‘normal’ people, in quotes – people I like going underground in Paris with, doing speleology.” I must look surprised, because he says: “For you, owning stock in Le Monde is incompatible with going into catacombs with my mates?”

Recently, Niel has graduated from irritating the French elite to irritating the global elite. For several days in January, Free changed its default settings to block online ads. The move was aimed chiefly at YouTube, which Niel says refuses to pay for the online traffic it generates. Fleur Pellerin, French minister for the digital economy, ordered Free to remove the block. When I mention this, Niel retorts: “You think we went to sleep when the minister told us to stop?” What will he do then? “We’ll continue. We’ll cut the ads from time to time, and one day we’ll cut them for good.”

By now we’re eating our main courses (excellent, incidentally) but, in a distinctly un-French way, Niel seems unaware of his food. He’s saying that the French don’t dislike businesspeople, they just dislike heirs. He himself, he claims, is quite popular. “I’ve never suffered aggression, neither on the street nor in the newspaper. And I read the most communist newspapers in the country.” So he goes around without bodyguards? He smiles at the thought. “I got here fine,” he says, and teases me: “Do you think it’s dangerous? Do you have a bodyguard?”

Three years ago, Niel, together with the industrialist Pierre Bergé and banker Matthieu Pigasse, bought the ultimate elite newspaper: Le Monde. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s then president, fought their bid. In private meetings, Sarkozy apparently referred to Niel as “the peep-show man”.

Niel finds the president’s machinations very funny. “Sarkozy was backing – what’s his name, the owner of Le Nouvel Observateur, a leftwing magazine? Sarkozy, a rightwinger, backed Claude Perdriel – that’s his name! – an intimate of his. We won because Sarkozy was against us!” laughs Niel. Le Monde journalists, suspicious of the president’s candidate, voted overwhelmingly for the Niel bid.

Niel now surely influences Le Monde? “We saved Le Monde! I adore this phrase.” He repeats it in English: “We saved ze World! We’ve never intervened there. I’ve only been into the Monde office once, when the editor Erik Izraelewicz died.” The word from inside Le Monde is that Niel doesn’t intervene with content but that his cost-cutting management upsets journalists. Tellingly, his emissary inside the paper in 2010, Michaël Boukobza, was known to staff as “Bazooka”.

Niel is almost as much a French Citizen Kane as a Steve Jobs. He also backs the investigative website Mediapart, which exposed Cahuzac. Why fund media? “I like having a free press.” I start to say, “A businessman who buys France’s most powerful paper because he believes in ...” but Niel interrupts: “I finance newspapers of the right and the left.”

He also invests in two new start-ups a week, he says. “It’s more profitable than playing the lottery, and much more fun.” Anyway, he explains, he wants to give money away. “I wasn’t born with much and the day I die, money won’t be much use to me. Why leave my children such responsibility? Why take from them all desire to have a life? They have enough for what they want. The rest I’d like to redistribute.” Incidentally, he notes: “I don’t think Steve Jobs had much desire to share his fortune.”

Hang on, surely it’s fun to be a billionaire? “Listen,” says Niel, “I don’t like clothes, I don’t especially like cars, I have a very nice house, I get seasick on a boat. You only eat once a day, you sleep once a night. My life is made, it’s very happy.” Didn’t he dream of getting rich, back in Créteil? “Yes, it was probably a desire inside me, to succeed, to make lots of money, etc. But once you’ve done it, what do you say to yourself?”

He can’t give everything away, he explains, because French law requires him to leave three-quarters of his wealth to his three children, the oldest of which is 13. “It’s an old law. If you raise it with French politicians, they say, ‘The French love inheritance, so we can’t touch that.’ ”

At least he’s managed to put aside €70m to create his own school in Paris for programmers, which he has called “42”. (In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” is 42.) Starting this autumn, the school will provide free education in programming. Niel especially hopes to attract poor youngsters. Admittedly his school isn’t accredited to offer diplomas but he doesn’t particularly mind. Already 50,000 candidates have applied for 1,000 places. “I think 10 to 15 per cent will create their own company, and that’s brilliant. Certainly 1 per cent will succeed, but that’s OK.”

It will help the country, he says. “France makes enormous gaffes, like setting a 75 per cent tax that affects nobody but gets the whole world talking.” Surely the tax – on incomes over €1m – will affect him? “No, because I don’t have a big salary.”

So he doesn’t share the general despair about France? “The French are always complaining. That’s the malaise: that they’re always complaining.” Why do they complain? “On principle. They were authorised to in 1789, and they decided to continue. You have a pleasant country, with enormous social protection, a tax system that isn’t all that horrible. It’s a fantastic place to live. It’s not the world’s best-run country but I love it.”

Niel refuses dessert and coffee. He never drinks it, he says. I haven’t encountered such abstinence in a Frenchman before. Still, he sits patiently while I have an espresso. I feel guilty and mumble something about how he must be busy. “Not at all,” he replies, “why do you think so? I have maybe three meetings a week, and I try to have them all on Monday.”

He has sat uncomplaining for nearly two hours, in the middle of his billionaire working day. Now he offers to pay for lunch. The FT pays, I say.“But I want to aid the Anglo-Saxon press too,” he says, chuckling. My credit card fails in the restaurant’s machine – always the way when you lunch with a billionaire – and he attempts to shove in but, after a brief struggle, I prevail.

I ask if he enjoyed the food. “It’s a good restaurant,” Niel says, reflecting on the matter apparently for the first time. “I’ve eaten well here but I’ve also eaten well at McDonald’s.”

I ask if he’s a happy man. “I’m delighted,” he replies with an ear-splitting grin. “Who am I to complain? What do I lack? I can’t think of anything.” Here’s something almost as rare as a French “self-made-man”: a happy Parisian.

Simon Kuper is an FT columnist


9 Place de la Madeleine, Paris

Fricassée of wild mushrooms x2 €86.00

Sea bass €48.00

Lobster ravioli €53.00

Glass of Domaine de la Dourbie, 2006 €10.00

Bottle of Evian water €7.00

Diet Coke €8.00

Espresso €6.00

Total (incl service) €218.00

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