Vanity Fair, January, 2011
“The Storming of St. Barth’s” by Vicky Ward published in Vanity Fair, January, 2011.
It’s the usual mad season on St. Barth’s as the super-rich and super-chic jet in for their holiday revels, but one particular visitor, American hotelier André Balazs, is causing a frenzy. Many locals fear that Balazs’s proposal for a 40-bungalow “eco-resort” on the island’s most pristine (and protected) beach, Saline, has the backing of President Bruno Magras and St. Barth’s powerful ruling families. The author plunges into the roiling waters of a debate over the future of paradise.
The Storming of St. Barth’s
On St. Barth’s, the chic-est Caribbean island, Christmas and New Year’s are the mad season. “During Christmas the energy is incredible,” says a longtime resident, who describes the island then as a “summer camp for wealthy, well-known New Yorkers,” business tycoons, music stars, and Hollywood celebrities. “It’s like the whole island is Studio 54 at its peak.”
There are so many rental cars on the roads that the traffic crawls. All the hotels are full. So, too, are the rental villas, which go for as much as $150,000 a week during the holiday season.
The most recent wave of invaders is the “New Russian” super-rich, and the island’s biggest celebrity at the moment is billionaire investor Roman Abramovich, who last spring renovated the local soccer stadium as a gift to the island. He paid $89 million for a 70-acre estate above Gouverneur Beach, which he visits with his 29-year-old girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova, and he can be seen tooling around in his Mini Cooper without the bodyguards that usually accompany him in London.
On New Year’s Eve, parties are given all over the island and on the yachts moored in Gustavia Harbor. “The tradition is if you know the friend of the friend of the friend you’re in,” says the longtime resident. Party crashing is an accepted local pastime. Last year Abramovich’s party was the party to crash. If you managed to get in, you could mingle with the invited guests, including Gwen Stefani and Beyoncé—who both reportedly performed—Jay-Z, Orlando Bloom, Miranda Kerr, and Lindsay Lohan.
When you got bored there, according to the resident, “you could always go to the party aboard [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen’s boat [the 416-foot Octopus], because it’s so huge that he literally just sends shuttles [to shore], and anybody can come.”
The regular holiday crowd includes Revlon chairman Ronald Perelman and modern-art collector Peter Brant and his newly reconciled wife, Stephanie Seymour. Some wealthy visitors like the island so much they have bought homes there—for instance, art dealer Larry Gagosian, Jimmy Buffett, Steve Martin, photographer Patrick Demarchelier, David Letterman, and legendary French singer Johnny Hallyday, who sometimes performs spontaneously at parties, just as Mikhail Baryshnikov sometimes sweeps a pretty girl off her feet on the dance floor.
“It was just like trying to explain to a little kid that what he was doing is wrong, but he’ll try to get it anyway,” says a politician of Balazs.
Billy Joel used to try out songs there, and Steve Martin spent several visits hiding behind shades and hats—before he realized nobody cared. That is the unique ambience of St. Barth’s. “There has never been a them-and-us” attitude, says a longtime resident.
On one level he is right. The locals have few problems with the visiting celebrities.
The divisions they face are among themselves, above all between the “Metros” and the old St. Barth’s families who own most of the island’s land and businesses and control its politics.
“Les métros are the people who come from la métropole, meaning from France,” explains David Zara, the vice president of Tradewind Aviation, which shuttles passengers between St. Barth’s and Puerto Rico in the winter. “There is a lot of tension between the Metros and the St. Barth’s [locals]—it’s all very well hidden because of the tourism, but, trust me, they hate each other.”
In general, the 10 or so old, powerful St. Barth’s families, led by Bruno Magras, the president of the 19-person Territorial Council (the local legislature), favor building and development—because they stand to profit most from it—while those who come to the island for pleasure and relaxation are for preserving its low-density housing and natural beauty. “Bruno is from the generation that feels that development must be endless,” says Maxime Desouches, an opposition member on the Territorial Council, “and that’s the way to go, because if you don’t have any development the island will fall back, and it will lose everything.”
The development/anti-development debate exploded after the July 16, 2009, meeting of the council, at which President Magras announced he had been approached by the American hotelier André Balazs, 53, the suave, handsome proprietor of L.A.’s Chateau Marmont and New York’s Mercer and Standard hotels, about building a 40-bungalow “eco-resort” behind the dunes at Saline Beach. Saline is a “green zone” (meaning you can’t build on it) and an iconic spot—one of only three mostly undeveloped beaches left on the island and the most pristine of them.
As the proposal was not formally on the agenda, no vote was taken that evening, but, according to Desouches and others, in the weeks that followed Magras let it be known that he strongly favored the project. (Magras says in an e-mail, “I was not against the idea of opening a part of that area behind the dune.”) And while Desouches says the majority of the council members were not initially enthusiastic, it was generally believed that the president could easily persuade them to vote for it. As one resident observes, “It is a local joke that if there is a voting session the first one who is going to vote yes or no is Bruno. He will put his hand up first before everybody else, and then everybody votes the same way.” Jean-Pierre Hennequet, who owns an arts and antiques gallery in Gustavia, the island’s capital, says that council meetings often approach farce: “You should see them. They arrive, they have a list of what they have to vote on, and they discover the documents when they arrive—hundreds of pages—and they have to say yes or no.”
By early October, three local environmental groups—Saint Barth Environment, Essential Saint Barth, and the Association for the Protection of Birds—had collected 1,185 signatures, from the approximately 5,000 eligible voters on the island, to block the Saline project. The petition, many residents believe, is the first significant challenge to Bruno Magras, who has ruled St. Barth’s for 15 years, first as mayor, when the island was a commune of Guadeloupe, an overseas region of France, and then as president since July 2007, shortly after the island became a more independent “overseas collectivity.”“It was the first time there was a petition, a public petition, against Bruno’s proposal with a lot of signatures,” says Hennequet.
The issue of developing Saline has galvanized the inhabitants of St. Barth’s and ballooned into the broader issue of the future of this tropical paradise: will it be paved and built over into oblivion, thereby alienating the wealthy and famous visitors who are drawn to it each winter and who fund much of the local economy?
Balazs says he’ll still pursue the eco-resort: “I have always viewed the saline project as a long-term commitment to the community.”
Hélène Bernier, a key player in circulating the petition, doesn’t look like much of a challenge to anyone, certainly not to powerful politicians and wealthy developers. At the Eden Rock, the first and most famous hotel on the island, she stands out from the other lunchers—French, American, and English tourists decked out in Eres, Chanel, Vilebrequin, and similar beach uniforms, who can still, in these hard times, blithely afford $100 for a vegetable plate and a half-bottle of rosé wine.
Bernier, who is slight—perhaps five feet two—says her family has been on St. Barth’s for 10 generations, but it is a small and poor family, not a powerful one. Today she is wearing khaki shorts and a white T-shirt that has seen better days. Her brown shoulder-length hair is damp from the humidity of the lunchtime heat. She looks absurdly young. Is she in her 20s? “I am 36,” she says.
Bernier explains that many more people supported the petition than actually signed. “I went house by house and said, ‘Do you want to sign?’ And a lot of people said, ‘I don’t want a hotel on Saline, but if I put my name on the paper, I’m going to have something I need from the president, for me or my family, and he is going to say no. So I cannot help you.’ It was a surprise for me at first. I said, ‘You can say what you want. You can put your name here—it’s legal. You can do it.’ But they would still say, ‘I don’t want to, because if I ask for something for myself after I sign, they are not going to give it to me.’ ”
Bernier herself has a vested interest in seeing that Saline is not developed: over the last eight years she has built up a business, Easy Time, in which she takes tourists hiking to visit the island’s places of natural beauty and cultural heritage. One of her clients’ favorite places is the beach at Saline, but she now fears for her and their safety if she takes them there.
The owners of the land which Balazs wants to develop—and there are dozens of them, largely from the Lédée and Bryan families—are mightily angered by her for ruining their jackpot. Because of Balazs’s interest, the owners were hoping to revoke the area’s green-zone status, which would make the land much more valuable. As Desouches notes, “When you consider the obscene amount of money involved, those people who want to sell their land don’t look kindly on someone who is saying, ‘No, no, this is not a good idea.’ ” Another longtime resident observes, “The Saline landowners are very cross, and now they are putting signs behind the beach that say, private property.”
“[I] took an ad in the local newspaper,” Bernier recalls, “in which I said on a certain day I would lead a hiking tour on Saline. The day before [a person from one of the families who own land there] called me and said, ‘If you come on Saline, we’ll be waiting for you with some rocks and we won’t let you pass. I don’t want you anymore in Saline.’ And that day I did go with my client to Saline. They were there. I saw them, but they didn’t move.”
Our Dinner with André
According to Desouches, Balazs, after talking with Magras and perhaps getting assurances from him, bought 50 percent of the land through “co-ownership”—which Balazs likens to buying shares in a corporation—at a cost of 15 million euros ($21 million), and he planned to buy the rest once he had all the building permits and authorizations. After hearing of the petition to stop his project, he made available on a Web site what look to be PowerPoint presentations about it. They are filled with photos of birds and plants and dunes, and they talk about the many environmental improvements Balazs says he will make to the property, such as “dune stability and enhancement,” “stormwater control,” “habitat restoration,” and re-vegetating with “lush native species.” Beyond some tiny rectangles on one or two of the aerial photos, a computer mock-up of eight generic cottages in a circle, and a stock photo of a bungalow from another resort, there is no indication of what the eco-resort will actually look like, although it is stated that the bungalows will not be visible from the beach, will utilize green technology, and will occupy only 2 to 5 percent of the parcel. However, this 2 to 5 percent seems to be only the total area the bungalow foundations will occupy, rather than the area throughout which they will be scattered. There is no mention of any office, restaurant, or common buildings. (Balazs explains that the 2-to-5-percent figure is a mere approximation.)
On September 25, 2009, Balazs went down to St. Barth’s with three or four of his team, including “a lawyer, a planner, and an ecologist,” to present the project at a meeting attended by 40 or so members of the local populace. The presentation was as vague and ecological as the documents: “You see nature from when you were a child, and when you were a child you see something green and that’s the way you think it was always supposed to be. But you know humans have been living … here for many centuries It’s nature with everything that’s alive—we’re nature It becomes fairly complicated and I’d be happy to talk about the details when we have more time.”
The mood was raucous and confrontational. “Not in this place,” one member of the crowd heckled, referring to Saline.
After talking a lot about how eco-resorts were the wave of the future, the Balazs team was forced to admit that they had never actually built one among their seven hotels. As Jean-Jacques Rigaud, the editor of Tropical magazine, put it, “The project was in a really very sensitive area, and he had to come with very serious guys in this field to be convincing enough, and he didn’t do that at all.”
Maxime Desouches recalls, “They were asking all kinds of questions, and obviously, when you build a hotel like that, you’re going to have employees, so I asked him right off, O.K., what’s the plan for you to employ local people versus bringing some more people who will drive [the] price of the rents up? So he couldn’t answer that. And I’m sure because he didn’t think down the road to see what was involved with his project in terms of local impact on the economy and how to get things to work.” (Balazs admits that he has not yet worked out such details as the design of the bungalows and who will build them. He explains that at this stage of its development the Saline project is “a vision, a plan, a suggestion,” and he believes all the objections that have been voiced are part of the normal dialogue and that each one of those concerns will be addressed at the appropriate time during the approvals process.)
“[They] should go into the middle of the Amazon and live with the birds,” says President Magras of environmentalists.
The evening went only further downhill when Balazs took a small group to dinner after the presentation. According to a source whose good friend was there, “André talked about protecting some local species [of bird or spider], which was, in fact, not found on the island—which raised ‘mixed feelings’ around the table.”
Jean-Philippe Piter, 42, a photographer who edits the annual Pure Saint-Barth (which features large photographs of young, naked women—a component that exasperates the more conventional members of the local tourist board), believes Balazs’s resort will mean “more people, more cars, more trash to deal with.” Some other questions skeptics are asking: Would yachts anchor in the sea opposite the resort? Would there be a private beach entrance for residents? Would it lead to construction all around the bay?
Jean-Pierre Hennequet echoes others in suspecting an underhanded scheme. “Due to the very high land price and the high cost of construction, a new hotel cannot be made profitable on St. Barth’s,” he says, “unless it is in fact eco-bungalows presented as a ‘hotel,’ which are actually intended to be individually sold as private ‘villas,’ with hotel service. Many professionals suspect that this is the real project behind the eco-curtain window dressing.” (Balazs says that selling the bungalows individually is the kind of thing that would be determined when getting final approvals.)
Even before Balazs came on the scene, virtually all of St. Barth’s was up in arms over a high-end development company, Duet Luxury Hotel Fund, which in 2008 began building, right by the lagoon on Grand Cul-de-Sac, a 42-room hotel that was to be called the Nilaia Beach Resort & Spa. Duet, which owns stakes in the restaurant Automat, in London, and the restaurant-and-hotel company Groupe Alain Ducasse, in Monaco, stopped the project last year due to a slowdown in the luxury market. It now consists of half-built concrete shells sitting behind rusty wire fencing in what used to be one of the most beautiful places on the island. “Why could Balazs not take the Grand Cul-de-Sac project on and complete it instead of invading Saline?” many on the island wonder. (Balazs replies that the unfinished resort is completely antithetical to the one he wants to build.)
Even those in favor of the project think it should be anywhere but Saline. Anne Dentel, a villa-rental agent, says, “I love Balazs’s project. Really, I love it. I thought it was a great idea, a great hotel, but it’s not the right location for me…. André said, ‘Oh, I’m going to build on the little mountain, and I will not go on the beach.’ But you know how it works. One client would go down and say, ‘I would like a lounge chair, an umbrella.’ Then ‘I’d like something to drink.’ Then ‘I would like a sandwich,’ and, you know, blah, blah, blah.”
Maxime Desouches tried to follow up with Balazs after the presentation to persuade him to consider another site: “I went up and talked to him. I said, ‘Look, I’m a public servant here, and I understand what you’re trying to do.’ And he said, ‘O.K., well, let’s go have lunch.’ So I went to his rental house, and I said, ‘Look, your idea is wonderful, but not in Saline, not in a million years. It’s going to be very difficult for you to swing that.’ But it was just like trying to explain to a little kid that what he was doing is wrong, but he wants his way, and he will try to get it anyway. I explained to him we had some other avenues we could explore, and my role as a public servant was to try to see how we could match what he wanted to do with other sites. I told him we could work on the Manapany [an existing hotel], which is in bad need of being re-done, and we could open the construction on one side and try to swing something there. At first, he was saying, ‘No, no, no. If I can’t do it in Saline, I won’t do it anywhere.’ But then he said, ‘Can you show me on Google Maps where it is?’ So I pointed it out, and he looked at it. He gave me his card, his phone number, and all that, and I said, ‘Let’s discuss it.’ So, when I was in New York I left two or three messages for him, but he didn’t return my call.” (Balazs says he has had a good dialogue with Desouches and was intrigued by the prospect of renovating the Manapany, but he discovered it is not for sale.)
‘Construction, construction everywhere,” complains Jean-Philippe Piter as we sit in his Daihatsu Terios—the car of choice on the island. “It’s time to stop the construction because we’re really now seeing the trouble that it causes for the environment: for trash, for electricity, for everything.” On an island that is barely eight square miles, we dart around, following a main road that loops from Plage de Colombier to Grand Cul-de-Sac and back. We pass through a small residential area, Pointe Milou, where Piter points out the foundation for a large house. “This is what I’m talking about. This is just too much,” he says, exasperated. Because of such construction, in the upcoming issue of Pure Saint-Barth, Piter will feature photographs of the island’s ugliness. “Whereas before I might have airbrushed out the ugly, growing construction, now it’s in. I want people to see the ugly gray rocks, the dumps, the burning waste,” he says. “Have you seen … And God Created Woman, with Brigitte Bardot?” he asks. “Remember when St. Tropez was a little village of fishermen? It was beautiful.”
Driving east to Grand Cul-de-Sac—the area where Duet Luxury Hotel Fund suspended its project—Piter recalls the site 15 years ago, when he first came to the island, as a lagoon where locals would come to swim and relax on Sunday afternoons. It is now surrounded by large homes, which, he says, have wrecked the delicate eco-system. “So now the lagoon is polluted. They fucked it up so much, you have no idea.” The skeleton of the 42-room hotel is as ugly as people say.
As we drive away, Piter spots some garbage, slams his hands on the steering wheel, and steers the car onto the soft shoulder of the road. He apologizes for his anger and excuses himself, saying, “Let me take a quick photo of this place.”
At Saline, which gets its name from the salt ponds behind the beach that once provided the locals with a source of income, we take the path from the makeshift parking lot to the beach. “You have to suffer a little bit to go there,” Piter warns me. From the car, we climb a hill, the path strewn with rocks and pebbles that will cut you if you are barefoot. Then we go over the dune, and a breathtaking view spreads out before us—an expanse of golden sand, half a mile long. Behind us are small hills brimming with palm trees, cacti, and birds. Piter’s passion for this place has never left him. “You now understand that they can’t touch it,” he says. “That would be the biggest mistake. Please tell Bruno when you see him that American people [and] tourists you speak with don’t want it.”
‘Lédée … Magras … Laplace … Gréaux … Gumbs … Questel … Turbé … Brin … Blanchard … Berry … Bernier … I think that’s it,” says Jean-Pierre Hennequet, who is listing the large and complicated founding families who rule St. Barth’s. If you check the St. Barth’s telephone book you’ll find 227 Gréaux, for instance, and 133 Lédées—on an island of 8,500 permanent residents. On the government organizational chart, which includes five officials and the 19-person Territorial Council, there are 6 people with the last name of Gréaux, 2 with Laplace, 2 with Magras, 1 with Turbé, and 1 with Questel.
I meet with Hennequet, long a sage confidant of many local inhabitants, at his shop. You walk in off the cobbled street and are hit by a cool darkness that is strange for sun-soaked St. Barth’s. Here, among the shadows, one sees a Fang Ngil mask from Africa, a 12th-century Cambodian sculpture of a young dancing girl, a piece of amber on an engraved silver pedestal from Bhutan. “It’s an eclectic collection,” Hennequet says airily, with the ease of a man who is familiar with the world’s exotic nooks and crannies.
“It all started here in the 17th century actually,” he says of St. Barth’s. “None of the founders came from France. They all came from St. Kitts, which was then half French, half English. The governor of St. Kitts sent about 60 people here in 1648 to colonize the island in the name of the French company of the West Indies. But there was nothing here, and it was lacking natural springs, so it was very difficult to settle here. And at some point it was also inhabited by the Carib Indians, who, when they met people different from themselves here, chopped off their heads.” So new settlers were enlisted from Normandy and Brittany, and they firmly established themselves around the 1670s. “Then they split the island among themselves more or less.”
The modern era of St. Barth’s started in 1938 when Rémy de Haenen, a former French merchant marine, came to the Caribbean and soon saw a ripe opportunity to establish a smuggling trade. Traveling at first by boat, de Haenen realized that to truly control the Caribbean he would need to do so by air, and, legend has it, he learned to fly—at an airstrip in Miami—in one hour. De Haenen was thus credited with being the first person to land an airplane on the island, having to first scatter the sheep by passing close overhead. By the 40s, de Haenen considered the island his home, and in 1953 he built Eden Rock on a piece of land near the airstrip that jutted out into the water. He made the house out of a green stone he dived for and a rare hardwood called Angelique that he imported from Guyana. The resulting house—and cottages he built around it—were uniquely hurricane-proof and served as the island’s first guesthouse for visitors, among them banker David Rockefeller.
As far as smugglers went, de Haenen was scarcely alone, but he was far and away the best. Until the 70s, the Caribbean was still largely an unregulated place where the smugglers were far more successful than the rare customs officials trying to stop them. In 1951, after being caught in Venezuela with 30,000 crates of whisky, according to his son Rémy and his grandson Tristan, de Haenen received what was the largest fine ever administered in the Caribbean: one billion francs. Over the course of his life, he was sentenced to prison three times, but none of this affected the high opinion the people on St. Barth’s had of him. By 1953, de Haenen was the consul general of the island, and, in 1962, he was elected mayor. Upon word of his victory, hundreds of islanders carried him in the streets. De Haenen protected and modernized the island, and, as one story goes, when France became curious about tax revenues and sent a collector to investigate, he organized a crowd of several hundred to wait at the airport with pitchforks, tar, and feathers. The tax collector never disembarked.
When de Haenen died, in 2008, his grandson says, he was “one of the poorest men on the island.” De Haenen sold his real estate at a loss, but those old-timers who managed to hold on to their land now find they are sitting on gold mines—even a modest house off the water can go for $7 to $8 million these days.
Hennequet says, as do other Metros, that the founding families fear becoming a minority of the voters and losing their power. What is at stake? “They have so many links and agreements between the big families here,” he explains, “and they have organized it so you do the petroleum and gas import. You do other general import. You do this, you do that. And they are all pulling the strings behind the scenes.” The powerful families are jokingly called the Magrafia, after their leader, President Magras. “There are so many little secrets going on on the island that they hold themselves apart,” says Randy Gurley, the owner of the restaurant Maya’s, just outside Gustavia. “If there’s a conflict between three people, and two of them are St. Barth’s, the St. Barth’s will side with each other, even if they hate each other, just because that’s how things have to go. Bruno has capitalized on that—I mean he is very much a St. Barth’s guy.”
Magras is a lightning rod for critics of the St. Barth’s system of patronage, and the stories are many about how bluntly he uses his power. People who cross him, say his opponents, find their requests for construction permits or other needed government approvals interminably delayed or denied. Or they will be harassed by the police, as Hélène Bernier claims she has been in an open letter to the island’s elected officials. Monique Magras, who is divorcing Bruno’s youngest brother, Denis, has given her “testament” about what she knows about the Magras family to her lawyer because she is so fearful of their power on the island.
One of Magras’s biggest antagonists on the island is David Zara, whose Tradewind Aviation is a rival to St. Barth Commuter, the airline owned and operated by Magras. “Should the president of an island also be its major businessman?” asks Zara, 48. “The answer is no. You have to make a choice. Either you’re a politician who wants the good of the greater community or you’re a businessman, but you can’t be both.” (Magras disagrees and says his job as president pays him only 4,800 euros a month, he has kids, and he has to make a living like everyone else.) Zara says that since Tradewind started operating on the island, in 2005, Magras has continually harassed him, accusing him of breaking regulations, and having police detain his pilots. “Bruno is a deeply envious person who cannot stand that anybody can come and make money on his island when he thinks he should be the only one making money. It’s pure, pure, pure, deep, deep envy,” says Zara.
Last year, Zara claims, a policeman even admitted to him that he had been instructed by Magras to harass him: “I mean, this man is way out there. He accuses me of everything under the sun.”
Magras responds that Zara has operated charter flights from St. Barth’s “to destinations where he was not allowed to fly to [by aviation regulations]. We did speak to Mr. Zara many times about that.” Referring to Zara’s claim about the policeman’s harassing him on orders from Magras, Magras says he did report what he thought to be an illegal charter flight to Guadeloupe one day. A few hours later his son Bertrand told him that Zara had said he was picking up friends there. “So it is true that on arrival in Guadeloupe, the gendarme made a control there And you’ll agree that when you don’t have anything to hide, being controlled is not a problem.”
Jean-Pierre Hennequet is more measured about Magras and points out the many good things he has done for St. Barth’s. “He managed to win a very large amount of autonomy from our motherland, which benefits the unique fiscal situation of the island within France—local residents who have been here for five years pay almost no taxes. He was very conservative, fiscally speaking, so probably alone among territorial entities of France we have not a cent of debt. He has developed many facilities for sports and for young people, and he is now doing the same for elderly people, and he is presently rebuilding the network of roads in a grand manner … maybe a bit too grand for the St. Barth’s some of us like.”
But Magras is also a shrewd and wily politician, Hennequet notes: “I will give you an example. From time to time there are public debates where the public can ask any questions, and he answers. If you say, ‘But why don’t you do this?’ or ‘It would be better to do it this way,’ usually he will not accept that something good can come from somebody else. It has to be his proposal. So he will reply, ‘Yes, it’s a very good idea. Of course, I thought of it first, but we cannot do it, because there is a law which in Article 6(z) says we can’t do that.’ And everyone says, ‘Oh really? That’s fine. Very well.’ Then after the meeting you go and check the law, and either the law does not exist or the article does not exist or the sub-article says something different.” (Magras says this is “nonsense.”)
Notes another longtime resident, “Bruno wants to be seen as the beneficent king. If he says there is a deal or no deal, just accept it and move on and stop talking about that silly rumor.”
One Man Is an Island
Bruno Magras, who looks a lot like the actor Charles Bronson, wears large tinted glasses, a blue dress shirt, and tan pants on the day we meet in his office. His cell phone is in his shirt pocket. His office has a big wooden desk and a photograph (mandatory for all French subsections) of French president Nicolas Sarkozy on the wall. The morning sun blazes through the windows. We sit on armchairs on either side of a coffee table.
He begins by telling me his story. “According to the research my family has made, we were one of the first families on St. Barth’s, in 1652.” Bruno was born on the island 300 years later, in 1951. His father worked odd jobs, building roads and even cutting the stone to be used in building a vacation home for David Rockefeller, who bought land on the west side of the island in the mid- to late 50s. It was Rockefeller who introduced St. Barth’s to the outside world when, in the early 60s, he entertained such luminaries there as Henry Kissinger and Aristotle Onassis.
Until then the vast majority of the local men were working on nearby Guadeloupe and would travel back and forth by sailboat. The few families able to afford to educate their children sent them to school on Guadeloupe or Martinique. Magras was not one of them. “I didn’t go to school,” he tells me, “but I read a lot, and I studied by myself a lot to know what I know today. I don’t have any regrets about that, because I know people who went to school for 20 years and I wouldn’t cut off my head to put on theirs.”
When he was 16, Magras moved to St. Thomas, in the American Virgin Islands, where he worked as a gas-station attendant and a mechanic’s assistant before learning how to fly in hopes of becoming a pilot. He then worked as a manager at the Guadeloupe airport for 15 years.
Magras had political aspirations early on. In 1976, at the age of 24, he was elected to his first office and by 1983 had risen to become deputy mayor. He temporarily abandoned politics in 1989 to concentrate on his business interests, including the island’s only cement company, a lucrative enterprise he owned with his brother Michel. (Bruno sold his stake in the company in 2003.) In 1995 he started St. Barth Commuter and was elected mayor.
When I ask him about Balazs’s Saline development he downplays what many on the island characterize as his enthusiasm for the project and the fact that he has not accepted the environmentalists’ petition, which would force the council to hold a vote on the project. “Now we have a few people here that, without knowing what was going on, made a petition,” he says. “Thirteen hundred people signed a piece of paper, without knowing anything, accusing the president that he was for developing Saline and this and that. Well, that’s politics. But it’s not my move, it’s not my word in politics. When you come to talk to me, I must receive you and listen to you, see what you think. And whether I agree with you or not, or perhaps will agree with you under some condition, we talk about it. But that’s not the way that people react; everyone has their own interpretation of what is going on. And what is going on is that André Balazs made a request to open the area to build an eco-resort, and the council did not approve opening the area.”
But Magras also says that St. Barth’s is a “free country” and that he and the Territorial Council can do little to prevent anyone from buying land or building on it, especially if he goes to court, which he says is an option for Balazs. It doesn’t take much prodding to get Magras to admit he is not exactly an environmentalist. “Of course, some people would like everything to be green and to live with the little birds, the flowers,” he says. “Some of them should go into the middle of the Amazon—you know what I mean—and live with the birds. That’s the best way. Because now they can build houses in trees.”
David Zara is convinced Magras, who is up for re-election in 2012, is just biding his time and planning for a way to push ahead with the Saline development. “Bruno’s like a scorpion,” Zara says. “He waits in the shade. He burrows himself in the sand, and then he comes back and bites. Now that he made one of the pieces of land nearby buildable, what is he going to do? He’s going to come back in a few months and say, ‘How can we deny permission to André Balazs?’ ” (“I do not pay attention to rumors,” Magras says. “Those unfounded comments are part of the ‘national sport’ of the island.”)
The petition against developing Saline was presented to the Territorial Council on October 6, 2009, but Magras didn’t put it on the agenda, as required by law, according to Maxime Desouches. The petition’s sponsors hired a lawyer and “eventually the administration judge will rule in favor of such inscription,” says Desouches, who believes the project is dead. “This will be a deal breaker between Bruno and the population,” he adds. “There’s no real need for the project, and people are more thinking now of a pause in the development of the island.”
But André Balazs says he will continue to pursue the eco-resort. “I’ve been coming to St. Barth’s most of my life, and I have always viewed the Saline project as a long-term commitment to the community,” he says. “All of our projects have been in historically sensitive areas in sophisticated communities, and addressing the concerns and interests of these communities is an integral part of these projects’ success.”
It took Balazs six years to build the Mercer; he’s only six months into Saline. Talk with him and you believe he will prevail. As Desouches says, “St. Barth’s is like a beautiful woman Men will do anything to have her.”
Vicky Ward is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.