His family may have ruled in Monaco for 700 years, but Prince Albert’s environmentalist stance marks him out as a moderniser. Alec Marsh meets a man of many passions to talk tax, transparency, and why Monaco isn’t as staid or dull as some might think
Half a dozen or so cannon, their barrels green with antiquity, stand before the cream painted walls of the Prince’s palace in Monaco. The crenellated building sits up high on the Rock of Monaco with commanding views over the Mediterranean and the principality’s two ports. It’s about 15 degrees warmer than the London I left this morning and the sun gleams from the palace windows.
This romantic-looking fastness first became the strong-hold of Monaco’s ruling family, the Grimaldis, in 1297. That’s when François Grimaldi, dressed as friar, led a group of Genoese Guelphs up to this strategically important promontory, snatched the fortress and ushered in regime change. More than seven centuries on, that regime still holds sway. In itself, this is quite an achievement; all the more so when you see what they’ve done with their 2.2 square kilometre corner of the world.
I am here to meet the 32nd Grimaldi ruler to sit on the throne of Monaco, His Serene Highness Prince Albert II. Since taking over from his father Prince Rainier III in 2005, the rugby-loving former Olympian has established a reputation as an environmentalist. He has also sought to move his principality from the shadows and burnish its appeal to the global super-rich.
And it’s working – Monaco’s population continues to swell, and its 39,000 inhabitants are the richest in the world. The GPD per capita of this micro-state is an astonishing $187,000, comfortably putting it at the very top of the pile. (The UK’s is a measly $43,000.)
Monaco also has more billionaires per head of population and per square foot than any country in the world. As a result, it can also lay claim to having the most expensive property in the world, coming in at about $44,000 per square metre. Price, however, doesn’t seem to be hampering demand, especially when personal taxes are non-existent (unless you’re French). As well as all that, Monaco has what many regard as the greatest F1 Grand Prix – run here since 1929 – and that rather famous yacht show.
After passing through palace security, I’m led across a courtyard and into the palace proper, and eventually I’m shown into an elegant room that the prince uses for meetings with his ministers. Among the artworks is an Andy Warhol screen-print of Grace Kelly, the prince’s mother, as well as a full-length portrait of his father in white tie. As we wait I notice a framed photo of the prince with the Clintons. Suddenly the footman stands to attention, chin up, arms at his sides – and the prince strides in.
Looking decidedly more youthful than his 61 years, Prince Albert wears a dark blue two-button suit, a white shirt and a gleaming silk tie in cerulean blue. Speaking in French, he greets the female press officer with a kiss on each cheek before breaking into the American English of his mother. This voice – which is not at all Gallic-sounding – seems to come from an altogether different part of his pal-ate. It is flatter, and not unlike the voice of former US presidential candidate John McCain. I’m reminded that he studied political science at university in the US.
‘Hi,’ he says. ‘Welcome!’ He chuckles and shakes my hand. He sweeps off his frameless glasses and stands before the desk for the first of the photographs. He poses, I sense, with the forbearance of someone who accepts it as part of their work.
‘Let’s sit down,’ he says casually, leading me over to a pair of formal armchairs by a glass-topped coffee table. They’re the sort you see world leaders photographed on at summits. As we sit, the prince arranges his cue cards on the table – each has one of my questions on it that has been pre-cleared with his team, along with answers in what looks like 16-point text. It’s disappointing to see our conversation already mapped out, but there’s something refreshing about the candour.
I turn to the first of our questions: what is his vision for his principality?
Albert speaks quietly, with humility, in a tone that is surprisingly low wattage: ‘Well, I don’t like talking about myself,’ he volunteers plausibly, ‘so I’ll talk about vision. What is important is to continue on our path, but with always keeping in mind the evolutions of the world around us, and to remain obviously focused on what has been in economic terms, successful for us in the past but without losing a capacity for adaptation to new trends.’
As he speaks, his hands work symmetrically, slicing the air together, or forming orbs. Monaco should ‘continue the diversification of our economy to high added value… technologically interesting and activities which don’t require too much space or manufacturing’, he says, while ‘keeping in mind the principles of sustainability and good governance’. He also wants to do things they’re already doing well, ‘tourism, the other service industries, but also security and to maintain also our neutrality and independence’. ‘That’s going to be more crucial in years to come,’ he notes. ‘It’s already highly important, but it will become even more so in the future when we see different difficulties and problems in other countries and areas of the world.’
Before turning to his take on those problems, I ask him about transparency. In 2018 Monaco started reporting on the Common Reporting Standard, the OECD’s global banking and tax sharing framework implemented by around 100 countries. What’s his position on the regime currently in place?
‘What we’ve been trying to do in the last ten years or more is to adhere to all the new rules and regulations that come out of different agencies and certainly in Europe,’ the prince says. ‘I don’t think you’ll find the name of Monaco on any black or any grey list of any institution around the world. I think you’ll find we are we fully compliant now in terms of transparency and the fight against money laundering and other fiscal frauds.’ Without my mentioning it, he’s mildly kicking into touch that hoary old cliché about Monaco, quoted from Somerset Maugham, about it being a ‘sunny place for shady people’. (In fact it’s misquoted: Maugham specified the Riviera.)
‘I think it’s unjust that we still carry that reputation nowadays, when we have made a very strong effort to bring all the bank and investment institutions along with us and to be compliant and to have new modus operandi for everything that we do.’
And what does he make of the current balance between individual privacy and the need for transparency?
‘I can’t say that it’s too protected,’ he declares. ‘It’s always a balance that you have to try to maintain.’ In respect of Monaco, he continues: ‘You have to be attractive for people who want to feel safe here, but feeling safe doesn’t mean hiding the origin of their funds or whatever transactions or operations that they do. There’s always a need for some to ensure that things are done discreetly when they have to be done discreetly, but when they have to be transparent there’s no way not to be transparent. Things are so scrutinised, and thankfully so.’
Looking to the world around us, I say, returning to our list of questions: what keeps you awake at night? The prince lays down his cream cards and takes off his glasses: ‘The biggest concern, and a lot of things stem from this and are a consequence of it…’ he begins, ‘it’s the degradation of our environment and the issue of climate change. Unfortunately there are a lot who don’t see that as the main threat, but unfortunately it is. So we have to make every effort that we can to – we’re going to feel the effects of climate change for years and decades to come.’
If this is a swipe at Donald Trump, who has announced the withdrawal of the US from the 2016 UN Paris Agreement, he doesn’t say. Instead he issues an optimistic call to action: ‘Let’s try to pool all our talents, and all our competences, and all our efforts to try to mitigate the effects of climate change, and to try to bring our economies to the solutions that will enable us to address this threat. It’s not only the degradation of different ecosystems that will not render their services and make life pretty difficult for us to feed ourselves. Also there are consequences for medicine, and the health risks linked to not only atmospheric pollution but diseases that come from different illnesses that are carried by different insects to higher latitudes. That’s a tremendous health threat.’
He warns: ‘The cost of inaction is far greater than of adaptation and mitigation. I know a lot of people try to dispute this argument, but it is the most pressing and most urgent and most formidable threat that we’ve ever had to face collectively.’
The climate challenge
Given the scale of the challenge of climate change, is enough capital being deployed to counter it? ‘No, I don’t think enough is being done,’ he says. ‘There isn’t a sufficient collective effort by the business world… there are some businesses that have committed themselves in terms of financing or changing their way of doing their business and some pledges have been incredibly brave and substantial. But more needs to be done, on a greater scale and at a faster rate.’
Notwithstanding the Paris agreement – signed by 187 countries – and the commitments many nations, Monaco included, have set to work towards carbon neutrality by 2050, Albert warns: ‘A lot of countries have set that target. But I know from a lot of reports that most of those countries are not on their way to do that at all. So we really have to step up the ways in which we are going to do this to meet our targets.’ Which is why there are so many follow-up meetings after Paris: ‘It’s an ongoing process of monitoring and making sure everybody does what they have set out to do and pledged to do.’
Of course, I say, the worry is that we won’t even make 2050 – but also that the temperature target stipulated by Paris (no more than a 2°C rise above pre-industrial levels) isn’t going to be enough anyway. The prince leans forward: ‘It’s like boxing,’ he says. ‘If you throw in the towel in the second round without having really thrown a punch, of course everybody’s going to throw things at you and boo you off the ring. You have to at least make the effort.’ Coming from a judo black belt and a competitor in the bobsleigh at five Winter Olympics, it’s an effective analogy.
But he concedes that for some, it represents ‘a big leap of faith’. ‘Of course it is because you’re committing to things that you maybe won’t see. We’re doing it for the next generations, for our children and our children’s children. If you don’t believe in their future and the future of the planet, then of course you’re not going to commit.’ He chuckles – and I can only wonder what he’s thinking. ‘I know a lot of people say, “Oh yeah, that’s too dramatic – you’ve got to give people hope.”’ That’s where leadership comes in. ‘You’re the one up at bat now, and you have to make sure you hit those sixes.’ He laughs. ‘Or even out of the ballpark.’
So does he approve of Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old ‘climate emergency’ activist, and the Extinction Rebel-lion movement? ‘What I’m very happy for is the younger generation is gathering around and is committed to this fight and to these goals, and is involved,’ he says. As for Thunberg, he says: ‘I have a lot of admiration for her, because she was the first one to come out with very strong statements. The only thing I don’t agree with her too much [about] is when she says: “Don’t give us hope. We don’t need your hope. You have to panic and feel the fear that we fear.” That’s a little too strong – you never do anything positive when you panic in any circumstance. The discourse should be more that we have to all rally together. We have to have hope at the end of the tunnel, otherwise there’s no reason to fight that hard.’
With the climate challenge in mind, I ask if he believes the world’s wealthy should take their money out of carbon. ‘Yeah,’ he says immediately. ‘We have no choice. We have to move towards a low-carbon economy and world. There are different ways of doing it. There’s a lot of technology that’s already available. It will only get better if you invest in it. And it will create jobs, despite what some people say. It will be beneficial.’
Since founding his own environmental foundation in 2006, Albert has taken international leadership in the battle against climate change and towards sustainability – but especially in the world’s oceans. In part you can see he was following in the footsteps of his ancestor Albert I, who founded Monaco’s Oceanographic Museum in 1910 (Jacques Cousteau was director from 1957-88), but Albert has gone further. In the days before we meet, he addressed the opening of the UN climate change conference in Madrid, where he warned world leaders to take ‘immediate action to address the crisis facing our oceans’.
And what of Monaco’s future, I ask? As a coastal nation with 20 per cent of its space reclaimed from the Mediterranean, is it prepared for rising sea levels? ‘We are looking at that,’ he states, explaining that the outside wall on the principality’s latest €2 billion-land extension project (which will add 15 acres of space) is being raised to 13 metres above the current sea level. ‘That should give a little bit of leeway,’ he says, ‘unless there’s some unfortunate catastrophic events that lead us to the complete melting of the Greenland ice cap.’ This, he says, would raise the sea level ‘probably any-where from four to six metres’.
Moving away from climate change, what does he make of the rise of populism? ‘It’s an unfortunate trend,’ he says, noting it is also part of ‘this sort of refusal of dealing with the problems’. ‘Of course they’re huge issues that aren’t addressed easily, but this refusal to take into account [of ] migration and to refuse to address it… and a tendency to revert to national-ism and to closed borders is not a good thing. History has showed us that in the past.’ He adds that ‘the refusal or lack of faith in multilateral forums… to at least keep an ongoing dialogue with other countries, I feel, is a terrible mistake’.
Here the prince points to Monaco. ‘We would not have been able to exist if we had not kept an open-arms approach to the world around us,’ he says. ‘We would not have been able to progress and develop in the way that we have if we had closed our borders – though it’s difficult to close our borders – if we’d had a not an as international approach as we have done in the past.’ Dynasties rise and fall, of course. To what does he credit the survival of the Grimaldis and Monaco? He begins by paying tribute to the ‘the wisdom of my ancestors’ and declares: ‘There were different moments in our history where we sought different alliances not only for our protection but also to survive, to be able to continue trade and just the existence of a community here.’
At first Monaco was part of the Genoese maritime empire (which was going great guns in the 1300s), but its own sovereignty was recognised by Spain only in 1633, and then by France in 1641. This was ‘a huge step forward’, says Albert: ‘It didn’t guarantee that we would be able to survive, but at least it was a recognition that we had reached – you know.’ He pauses. ‘I was going to say,’ he breaks into a chuckle, ‘statehood, but at least it was recognised as a country, albeit small, though we were much bigger than we are today.’
Monaco endured as a sovereign French protectorate until the French revolution, when in 1793 it was invaded and became a department of France, its ruler imprisoned. Two decades later, at the Congress of Vienna, the Grimaldis were back: Monaco became a protectorate of the Kingdom of Sardinia.
With the solidification of Europe’s national borders in second half of the 19th century, Sardinia was folded into Italy and Monaco reverted to France. A treaty of 1861 with France fully recognised Monegasque sovereignty in exchange for certain parcels of land. ‘We lost three-quarters of our territory,’ says Albert, surprisingly brightly, ‘but that’s OK. We still survived.’ He grins. Today he describes Franco-Monegasque matters thus: ‘It’s a wonderful relationship – very open, constructive and friendly.’
That’s something many would hope for from the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Is he prepared to discuss Britain’s departure from the European Union, I ask? ‘Of course, like everyone else in Europe we’re monitoring very closely,’ he comments. ‘We’re saddened the way it all unfolded: we will see… I hope it’s done in then best way possible – and I don’t know what that best way possible is, but no one gets left on the sidelines, and I hope that there will be a good discussion and at least a good dialogue with the European Union.’
Turning to his Monegasque and Irish-American ancestry, I ask what he makes of the increasing emergence of more complex identities thanks to increasing globalisation. ‘If you come from different backgrounds – like my family does – I think it’s incredibly enriching personally to be able to learn from your ancestry and your heritage and from the different cultures that you come from,’ he says. ‘That’s why I’m really pleased and proud of the fact that Monaco is home to close to 140 different nationalities. And that’s on a little over two square kilometres – that’s pretty amazing that everybody seems to get along.’
I remark that I’ve heard he throws exceptionally good St Patrick’s Day parties at the palace – and he laughs. Does his mixed ancestry pose difficulties for him when the Six Nations is on? The prince is famously mad about rugby.
‘Well,’ he’s deadpan but offers a broad smile. ‘I must say… I have a bit of a problem when Ireland plays France, because I… my French friends know that I can’t completely back the French, but,’ he shrugs ‘my Irishness comes back to the forefront there.’ He chuckles. ‘And also Scottish a little bit, because we’ve got a little bit of Scottish on my father’s side of the family.’
I ask him to dilate upon Monaco’s appeal to the world’s wealthy. Albert looks through notes – ‘I want to make sure I don’t miss anything,’ he says – but I’m not sure he needs them. The prince cites Monaco’s business-friendly environment, quality of life, the good weather, ‘but also security, and job security is part of that, and good health services and good education’. Monaco has 500 police officers, making it per inhabitant among the most heavily policed states in the world. As a result, businesses are clamouring to set up in the principality. ‘The numbers have never been as high as they are today,’ he states. ‘I think that means something, that people feel that the environment is favourable here, that it’s safe, that it’s clean – there are many benefits, and not only a comfortable corporate tax.’ This last he describes as being ‘slightly less than in France’.
‘I think we offer a favourable setting for everyone to feel comfortable investing in Monaco, and also what people have told me – I get feedback from people who have just moved here – it’s not only that it’s good for their business but the school system is good,’ he notes, adding that the international university offers an MBA programme. ‘It’s this whole platform that we offer that I think people are attracted to.’
As a result, the age profile of people moving to Monaco is not what you might think. ‘You’d be surprised at how many young couples have moved here in the last 10 to 15 years,’ he declares. ‘That’s been the remarkable feature of these last few years.’ This is thanks to the business environment as well as that ‘whole platform’. ‘I know that that was the main point that people made in the past is that, “Ah, Monaco, it’s kind of an older crowd there. It’s very quiet and very boring – BORING.” But that is inaccurate now to portray Monaco in that way.’
That may or may not be something that the prince has been wanting to get off his chest for a while. Certainly, were one a hereditary head of state, it’s not difficult to imagine hat it’s hard not to take claims that the country you embody is tedious in some way personally. For the record, Monaco still has the oldest median population in the world (53 years, compared to 47 in Japan and 40 in the UK) but might have been much worse. And it’s more or less on a par with places like north Norfolk and Devon, where the average age is in the early fifties.
The Grimaldi legacy
The prince has done his own work to reduce the average age of Monaco, of course. As well as two children born before he was married, he has twins with his Zimbabwean- born wife, Princess Charlene, a former Olympic swimmer, whom he married in 2011. That has fulfilled one important task of any hereditary head of state: to produce a son and heir. Jacques, Hereditary Prince of Monaco and Marquis of Baux, is aged five.
I return to where we began with his legacy. The prince checks his phone – I suspect that our time together is nearly at an end – and I ask him again what he hopes to achieve for Monaco. ‘I’m committed to welfare and the happiness of not only the Monegasque people but the people who live and work here,’ he says, reminding me that of the near 40,000 inhabitants in Monaco, only around 9,000 are Monegasques. ‘I feel responsibility toward all these people. I want them to be safe and to be happy and to lead happy, productive lives, and hopefully with a future that is bright – and that we will have a future if we address the issues that are threatening our environment.’
I turn off the tape, and we chat on the way to the door, examining the art on the way. The Warhol screen-print turns out to be one of two the prince has. He gazes up at his father’s dashing portrait and there’s a glimmer of pride there, too. I make my farewells – and leave Prince Albert behind, alone in the room. We go back along the corridors, back across the courtyard, where a colourfully dressed guardsman returns my passport and then I’m back on the street corner, in front of the cream-painted palace, now immaculate in the honeyed Riviera dusk. As I wait for the €95 taxi to Nice airport just 19 miles away, I spot the bronze statue of the man who began it, François Grimaldi, dressed in the hooded robes of a friar. Then I glance up at the now dark windows of the palace and can’t but wonder about the princely figure inside.