Hitting the Euromillions jackpot: too much of a good thing?

This week saw good news for at least one person in France. (No, I’m not talking about former PM Dominique de Villepin, although he was obviously relieved to have his acquittal in the ‘Clearstream’ case confirmed by an appeals court). No, instead, while markets were getting jittery over French banks’ exposure to Greek debt, someone in rural Normandy had just won the Euromillions jackpot. The lucky winner is set to pocket the tidy sum of 162.2 million euros, a record for a lottery won on French soil.


Last week, when it became clear such a huge sum was going to be up for grabs after yet another rollover of the jackpot, a French MP spoke out calling for a limit to the prize. Eric Straumann, of the ruling centre-right UMP party (no, not even a Socialist), said he felt it was too much for one person alone. Straumann wrote a letter to the French lottery organisers, La Française des Jeux, suggesting that the Euromillions jackpot be capped at 30 million euros. (There is in fact already a cap - but it's at 185 million euros).


Bah humbug, I hear you say. That was my also my first reaction to the proposal. But after watching an interesting report last night on the French news about lottery winners past and present (noting that that the soon-to-be-millionaire in Normandy has yet to claim his or her winnings), I’m not so sure.


The lucky winner is set to pocket 162.2 million euros, a record for a lottery won on French soil. (Photo: AFP).


Indeed, when you think about it, surely as "little" as one million euros should really be enough for anybody to live comfortably and give up the day job? So I can certainly see Straumann’s point about 162-odd million being too much for just one person. The French media, unwittingly or not, reinforce it by pointing out that 162 million euros would buy you, for example, 80 - yes, 80 - villas on the French Riviera. And you don’t have to be a sociologist to realise that the current economic context doesn’t make these kinds of sums look quite so good. Especially when you then read that the jackpot is worth the equivalent of 10,000 years on the French minimum wage - yes, you read that correctly.


Besides, winning the lottery also has drawbacks, no doubt amplified in function of the jackpot: perhaps feeling obliged to move to a richer area to fit in, becoming suspicious of your friends’ or family’s motives for hanging out with you, not to mention the temptation to fritter (so to speak) the money away instead of investing it wisely. I was not surprised to learn that the French lottery organisers run a special service for new millionaires, not only providing a handbook for the lucky winners, but checking up on their progress regularly, for example by sending them questionnaires.


But that’s not the point, retort others: the whole fun is being able to dream about all the things you would do with such a massive (some would say ridiculous) sum of money, and Straumann is just trying to spoil that fun. Having never won any more than two euros on this lottery lark myself, I can certainly see both sides of the argument.


In any case, I’m almost surprised that nobody in France made this suggestion before. For obvious historical reasons - a traditionally Catholic country with strong interventionist instincts and misgivings about free markets - the French have an ambivalent relationship with money and tend to shun excesses of wealth, at least in public. (It’s not by chance that nobody ever counts your change into your hand in shops here). Shortly before Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York on attempted rape charges back in May, the French press were all over a story about him reportedly buying expensive suits from the same tailor as US President Barack Obama in Washington. As a likely Socialist presidential candidate, this was damaging for his image and he went so far as to sue the newspaper which had printed the offending allegations. This in turn led to some slightly surreal headlines, at least to non-French eyes. My favourite was “DSK's chic suits: entourage denies, tailor confirms”. (I bet he longs for that kind of headline these days).

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