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It’s a cold, wet day in Paris and I am waiting for Matthieu Pigasse at Kinugawa restaurant. The name means “angry demon river” in Japanese and it seems an appropriate place to meet the self-styled enfant terrible of France’s cosy financial world.
Pigasse is chief executive of the French arm of investment bank Lazard. He is also a dealmaker for the French government, an anti-materialist punk rock aficionado and, increasingly, as co-owner of newspaper Le Monde and other publications, a media mogul.
The first time we met had been in his office for a business meeting. We spent almost the entire time talking about music. He mocked my taste in French rap and sent for his laptop so he could explain the true genius of his favourite songs by the Clash. I have high hopes for our lunch together.
The restaurant is minutes from the Ritz hotel and the baroque marble corporate offices in the venerable Place Vendôme but we are a world away in terms of decor. Kinugawa has clean lines, soft cedar wood floors and polished black stone counters.
Pigasse, who turns 46 this weekend, arrives and blends in tastefully. He is wearing a black suit, black tie and crisp white shirt with the top button undone. Thin and wiry, he sits down, looks once around and puts his mobile phone on the table.
I ask him why he has chosen to meet me here rather than in one of the classic Parisian “white tablecloth” places one might expect to be the haunt of the French boss of a 160-year-old investment bank and co-owner of France’s most prestigious newspaper.
“I am very anti-bourgeois,” he says. “What you describe is very bourgeois, very old-fashioned, old style. You see that in Ratatouille, you know, the [animated] movie with the rat,” he says, mimicking the way the waiters in those stuffy places pull the lids off silver platters.
“Also I like Japanese food because it is very light. I like it when, after a lunch or dinner, you are still hungry because, if you are hungry, you are still under tension. I like that. You know Cioran?”
I don’t know what he’s referring to but gain valuable thinking time when the waiter arrives to take our order. Pigasse tries to order a single plate of sushi, I suppose so that he can stay hungry. Instead, I persuade him to join me in ordering the six-course tasting menu for two. “Let’s do that, I follow you blindly,” he says.
I also ask for a warm sake and encourage him to do the same but he only orders a green tea. He tells me he has spent the morning on a €6bn deal to sell a chunk of Nestlé’s stake in cosmetic giant L’Oréal back to the French company, and there will be more to do in the afternoon.
With the order taken, I return to our previous topic. “Is [Cioran] a restaurant?” It’s a guess. “No. [Emil] Cioran is a very famous – well, maybe not very famous – but he was a very good [Romanian-born] French writer. He says, ‘You know what, I love France. But they speak always about food and that is a sign of a declining country.’ His line is, ‘When you have a full stomach, you have an empty mind.’ That is exactly what I believe.”
Is France really a declining country? “We are not doing well, obviously. It is a depressed country,” he says, reeling off a familiar list of problems, from lack of growth to fading competitiveness and a “crisis in political leadership” by both the right and the left.
For Pigasse, a spate of recent problems at his newspaper Le Monde, which he and two other investors bought in 2010, are symptomatic of the country’s wider problem. After our lunch events take a dramatic turn: on the same day that the New York Times sacked its editor Jill Abramson, Le Monde’s editor Natalie Nougayrède resigned amid a revolt by senior editors over plans to tilt resources to its online output. (Pigasse tells me by email: “I cannot help but compare what is happening in Le Monde to what is happening in France more generally. It is difficult to manage, to lead, to have change accepted. It is a French weakness. We have to accept that the world is changing. We have to change.”)
We are each presented with a little tower of raw tuna in a bowl of pungent soy sauce topped with caviar. “Bon appétit,” says Pigasse, delicately cracking apart his chopsticks and poking at the gelatinous mound.
I want to challenge Pigasse over his earlier claim to be anti-bourgeois; that he can be leftwing and anti-materialist yet at the same time run an investment bank as well as a national paper and music magazine, Les Inrockuptibles. The most recent addition to his portfolio is an almost-finalised majority stake in weekly journal Le Nouvel Observateur.
Pigasse’s career has followed the classic French establishment path. He studied at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the incubator for the country’s elite, and then went into politics, serving two finance ministers: first as a cabinet adviser to Dominique Strauss-Kahn (1998-99) and then as chief of staff to Laurent Fabius (2000-2002).
When the socialist government lost the election in 2002, he moved into business, becoming, at 32, the youngest ever partner of Lazard, making his name advising on sovereign debt restructurings for Iraq, Ecuador, Argentina, Cyprus and Greece, alongside the $40bn merger of Suez and Gaz de France (to become GDF Suez).
In France, the unkind expression one might use to describe Pigasse is “gauche caviar”, a lefty who eats caviar, the equivalent of “champagne socialist”. So, I say, you are a banker, not Robin Hood, right?
“I take from bankers and give back to countries,” he replies in his lightly French-accented English. Really? I say. “Of course, really,” he shoots back, suddenly serious.
“An important part of my job is to advise governments around the world against the financial establishment. When we restructured the Argentine debt in 2004-05, we [Lazard] did a haircut of the bank debt. In some ways, financially speaking, we were giving back to the countries.
“Even for companies, my fight as a banker is to help French companies get stronger. So when we advise L’Oréal to buy back Nestlé shares, I believe that we reinforce the independence of L’Oréal.
“This is not anti-bourgeois per se but I consider that it has a meaning . . . I might move sometimes in a very classic world but I have the pretension not to be that classic.”
Along comes the second course, yellowtail fish carpaccio with some tangy coriander sauce. The pause allows me space to edge the conversation on to his media empire.
In 2010 Pigasse teamed up with two other well-known French business names, Xavier Niel, a former sex-shop owner turned telecoms billionaire, and Pierre Bergé, business partner to the late Yves Saint Laurent, to rescue the Le Monde group – much to the chagrin of then president Nicolas Sarkozy. “When we bought Le Monde, we did it against the Establishment. You have to remember, back then, the president of the republic was against us. He mentioned me many times. His top adviser was against us and many French executives were looking at us with distance.”
It has also been rumoured that Pigasse and this same merry band are interested in buying Libération, the leftwing newspaper started by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1973 in the aftermath of the May 1968 student rebellion.
I can see why Libération should attract Pigasse, who was born in May 1968, and comes from a family of journalists (his father worked on a regional paper in Normandy). Workers at the lossmaking title have this year been on strike over a plan by its current owners to transform the newspaper into a social network, including turning its headquarters into a “cultural space”. So, I ask straight out, does he want Libération?
A baby spinach and sea bream salad is laid at our table, giving him time to pause, then smile. “So it’s true!” I say, reading his facial expression. “So far,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “my understanding is that the current shareholders don’t want us in. We do not share their project. We believe that Libération is, indeed, a newspaper first and not a Swiss [army] knife,” he says.
But what if the shareholders were not a problem? “Then we would see, but not with them. We are monitoring the situation closely but we will see.”
As two plates of blackened cod arrive – there’s a dark miso marinade on the outside and they are almost gooey in the middle – Pigasse starts to object to the quantity of food. “How many more [courses] are left?” he asks the waiter. The conversation veers towards the pop culture subjects close to his heart: music, TV, video games. He spends perhaps 15 minutes talking about the US reality television show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. While he’s doing that, a small plate of clams arrives, swimming in a pungent garlic sauce.
“For me reality TV is a window on the world, you know what I mean?” he says, as I nod sagely, attempting to hide my lack of familiarity with these programmes behind a bowl of warm sake. “You see how people think, react, act. Through her, Kim [Kardashian], and through the whole family, you see a world that I am not used to.”
He is explaining some detailed plot lines of his other favourite shows, including Les Anges de la Téléréalité, a French show starring previous reality TV stars, and The City, an MTV programme, when he rumbles my ignorance. “But you know nothing about TV . . . I mean, seriously, come on, be in your time.”
I switch to video games. Pigasse is said to play extensively but I ask how he can possibly find the time in between banking, growing his media empire, and indulging other hobbies including organising rock concerts and writing books. (The latest, Eloge de l’anormalité, or In Praise of Abnormality, came out in March, urging action to combat unemployment and inequality.)
He finds time for games, it turns out, because “I play at night, or on planes. I play with my daughter, who is 12 years old, games like Mario Party, Mario Kart, which I love. I still win by the way. Or at night, alone, games such as Assassin’s Creed – I have done all of them,” he says.
I point out there have been several Assassin’s Creed games and each one must take around 30 hours to complete – quite a commitment. “Exactly . . . ” He leans in, conspiratorially, letting me in on a secret. “Don’t sleep because you will die soon. How much do you sleep? In fact, I don’t want to know. I sleep between three and four hours a night. I work until 1am, and then I do something different.”
He listens to music at night, he says, as well as watching TV. “The first thing is that I have to listen to music every day. I need that, just like I need sugar. I mean it. It is la rage. The anger is part of me. The day you are not angry any more, you are getting old and you will die. I mean it. I have that in me since I was a child actually.”
Pigasse grew up in a fishing village in Normandy, where, he tells me, he played guitar in a band called Les Mercenaires du Désespoir (The Mercenaries of Despair). “The songs were very Baudelaire-inspired. I love poetry, I believe it is punk in words, in fact. There is a poem by Baudelaire called ‘Spleen et Idéal’ in Les Fleurs du Mal. We had a song called ‘Spleen Without Idéal’. Now you understand the teenager thing, right?”
He asks me for my favourite song of the past year or so. I learn that his is “Here Comes the Night Time” by Arcade Fire but, having been put on the spot, I suddenly find it impossible to think of the name of any song that has ever been written. So I say the last song I listened to, which is “Black Skinhead” by Kanye West. Pigasse’s nose wrinkles. I expect criticism but he is polite. “Not my thing but I understand.”
Many people in the Parisian investment banking world say Pigasse is not at all polite. While he is seen to be a good operator, I am told he is also rude and arrogant. When I put these criticisms to him, Pigasse replies that it is just “jealousy [and] envy” from those annoyed by his early success, fame and unorthodox style. I read Pigasse one off-the-record quote about him made by a rival: “Banks are not used to hiring people who love themselves more than they love money.”
He bristles. “I think the guy knows himself very well, as he loves money more than anything else, but he does not know me at all. I do not like myself, or I would not be into the punk thing. Bullshit. As far as critics are concerned, look at the results.”
We are already polishing off the last course, a plate of sushi, and order coffees. Pigasse has sunk into his chair and is leaning against the wall, as if the food we have consumed over the past two hours has (as he said it would) dulled his drive, allowing gravity to get the better of him.
Over two espressos, we have time for a meander back into the world of his socialist-cum-investment banker philosophy. Pigasse owns, he says, no cars or property, because he thinks it’s bourgeois. While he paid more than $100,000 for a piece of original artwork from the Clash’s London Calling album, he does not really collect, he says, for the same reason.
“I don’t believe in materialism. Nothing lasts. And that is the reason you should not sleep, because nothing lasts. You should sleep as little as you can, and try and change the world.” We leave into the rain together, the maître d’ pressing a card into his hand on the way out, then Pigasse climbs into the back of a silver car and is whisked away.
Michael Stothard is the FT’s Paris correspondent
9 Rue du Mont Thabor, 75001 Paris
Set menu x 2 made up of raw tuna in soy sauce; yellowtail carpaccio in coriander sauce; sea bream and spinach salad; blackened cod marinated in miso; clams in garlic sauce plate of sushi €170.00
Warm sake €11.00
Japanese tea €5.00
Chateldon water €7.00
Coffee x2 €8.00
Total (inc tax, service) €201.00
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