At 83-years-old, Gérard Mulliez was still up for the fight. The patriarch of one of France’s wealthiest families barged through the doors of the local Lille Communist party headquarters.
Pointing at a poster that labelled him a “Profiteur de la crise” in 2015, he said: “You are not very nice to me… I create jobs with my stores.”
“It’s ideological gibberish,” Mulliez exclaimed, according to witnesses reported in local media, after a local claimed workers across his empire were being exploited at the expense of enhancing his family’s vast wealth. With that, he turned on his heels, got into his Range Rover and sped off.
Since that exchange, Mulliez’s businesses have gone from strength to strength. With an estimated fortune of €42bn (£35bn), his family is not just one of the wealthiest in France but the 15th richest on the planet, according to Bloomberg.
Supermarket giant Auchan is central to Mulliez’s network of business interests. Dubbed France’s answer to Walmart, he launched the company in 1961 after meeting the founders of Carrefour and Leclerc. Auchan now operates in 13 countries, employs nearly 180,000 people and generates €32bn of annual revenue.
Among Association Familiale Mulliez (AFM)’s other brands are sports chain Decathlon and Leroy Merlin, one of the world’s biggest DIY chains.
Now approaching his 91st birthday, Gerard Mulliez could be expected to take a backseat. But while Barthélémy Guislain, 48, has been chief executive since 2014, the Mulliez family wields absolute power behind the scenes.
AFM is using that power to in effect back the Kremlin as it ramps up some operations in Russia. It comes as many French companies remain in Russia, while many of their US and UK competitors pledge to withdraw from the country.
Oil major TotalEnergies is clinging on to its 20pc stake in Russian state-controlled gas producer Novatek, while Danone is also continuing to operate in Russia, which represents around 6pc of its annual revenues – with boss Antoine de Saint-Affrique telling the Financial Times: “We have a responsibility to the people we feed”. The world’s largest yoghurt maker said it was suspending investment in the country and would continue to monitor how the situation evolves.
At AFM, Auchan employs 41,000 people across 311 stores in Russia, generating around a tenth of the chain’s turnover. Leroy Merlin operates across 112 locations which account for nearly a fifth of the €3bn it generates in sales. Decathlon has 60 stores in the country.
All three are continuing to operate in Russia despite Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine.