Billionaires’ compound with its own coronavirus testing center stokes anger on the French Riviera

And here in this French Riviera resort — one of Geffen’s favorite summer ports of call — a gated compound of some of the world’s richest people has its very own, very private testing site.

Set in the director’s office of the 270-acre Les Parcs de Saint-Tropez — where LVMH luxury group Chairman Bernard Arnault, Ritz Paris owner Mohamed al-Fayed and Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal have palatial villas — the medical unit is staffed with a doctor and lab technician to take and process samples from residents and their friends. Details were leaked to the regional newspaper, the Var-Matin, which reported that the effort was organized by Les Parcs’ association president, Jean-Louis Oger. The wealthy pharmacist turned entrepreneur owns several clinics and laboratories in the South of France.

Townspeople have widely condemned the clandestine center as yet another example of the inequality that spurred the “gilets jaunes” — or “yellow vests” — protest movement that has roiled the country since late 2018.

“So much for solidarity,” one local told the Var-Matin.

Across France, which already counts more than 20,000 deaths in the pandemic, most public hospitals are overwhelmed with covid-19 patients. Tests are in short supply or are completely inaccessible. Outside the compound’s walls, the situation is not much different at the Pôle de Santé du Golfe de Saint-Tropez hospital.

Medical personnel are “scandalized,” according to one hospital doctor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue on the peninsula. “It’s not normal that we have nothing — no tests — and that it is a nightmare for us to get ahold of one.”

Oger insists that the medical unit has conducted only blood tests for a clinical trial that his company is running to determine levels of immunity to the virus in people who have been infected.

“We have not done any nasal tests, which is how one determines if a patient is sick,” he said Friday. (Locals claim to have heard otherwise.) And if the trial proves successful, Oger promised to offer immunity testing to Tropéziennes once the government lifts its stay-home order.

A half-hour drive from Les Parcs, a lab in Sainte-Maxime has coronavirus tests, and Oger said he has advised neighbors to go there if they fear they are infected. When told that the Saint-
Tropez hospital had none, he responded: “That’s not my concern.”

The town isn’t buying his explanation. “I don’t believe it for a second,” scoffed Laetitia Leplai­deur, a former president of the Rotary Club. “Tropéziennes are talking about the covid-19 testing, . . . and they are furious. We would all like to have a test.”

Les Parcs de Saint-Tropez was founded in 1951, when builder Robert Geffroy, stuck in the picturesque fishing village after his yacht’s engine conked out, discovered a stretch of wild beachfront land just minutes away. By then, Saint-Tropez had already become a favorite holiday hideaway for the rich, famous and privileged.

Errol Flynn regularly sailed through on his ketch, Sirocco; Colette wrote books at her bungalow; and Coco Chanel and Jean Cocteau vacationed here. Geffroy spent the next 30 years developing the scrubby parcel on Pointe de l’Ay into a spectacularly exclusive neighborhood that had a guard in a gatehouse — an early novelty.

Its most chronicled resident has long been billionaire Jacques Gaston “Tony” Murray, a World War II hero who later made a fortune in fire extinguishers. For years, Murray hosted the jet-set bash of the summer, attended by such glitterati as Ivana Trump, Naomi Campbell, Elton John and Prince Andrew. Entertainers such as Natalie Cole crooned poolside, and the tabloids provided breathless coverage. Alas, the fabulous fete is history. The centenarian’s age, not the coronavirus, is the reason.

Most owners of the 150-plus homes on the point are now more discreet, usually chauffeured to the manicured enclave in July and August by dark-windowed sedans or, even better, flown by helicopter. Many have private security details to supplement what the residence association provides. The mansions along the coast sport jetties to allow access to the superyachts anchored in the azure blue bay. There is a private beach club as well — though government decree closed it, like all beaches in France, on March 18, and the earliest reopening will not come until May 11.

Much of Saint-Tropez is shuttered because of the national lockdown; only essential businesses, such as grocery stores and bakeries, remain open. The narrow, stone-paved alleys that meander to the 15th-century port are empty, and the dusty Place des Lices, where old-timers play boules under the leafy canopy of gnarled plane trees, is quiet.

Les Parcs, however, is buzzing with activity. About a third of the residences are occupied, according to Oger. Gardeners and pool cleaners apparently are coming and going with ease, and construction projects are proceeding on schedule. Indeed, in disregard for safety concerns, some homeowners have told their property managers that if the maintenance personnel and contractors don’t show up, no one gets paid.

“This is an example of the Happy Few,” Leplaideur said. “As if they are saying, ‘Well, we have money, we do what we want, and we don’t care what the state says.’ The rules of confinement are well respected across the peninsula, except in Les Parcs.”

It is unknown if the community has had any confirmed cases of covid-19. Since the testing site is on private property, it is outside the municipality’s jurisdiction. The Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Regional Health Office in Marseille is “aware of the testing,” whatever sort it may be, spokeswoman Brigitte Lopresti noted last week with a whiff of exasperation. “There are norms to respect, and we gave them conditions one should follow. But it’s a private residence, and we don’t know what’s going on.”

C’est la vie, c’est la pandemic.

Dana Thomas is a Paris-based journalist and author.

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