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French ski resort abuzz over $6.6-million birthday bash

As a winter playground for the well-heeled, the chic French ski resort of Courchevel is used to the extravagant demands and excesses of its wealthy clientele.

With its 11 five-star hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, heated pavements and numerous diamond dealers, the Alpine getaway is a magnet for the super-rich, especially oligarchs from the former Soviet Union.

But with the world in the economic doldrums, Ukrainian steel magnate Victor Pinchuk has shocked some residents by throwing himself a lavish birthday party that French news media estimate will cost $6.6 million.

More than 300 guests are flying to Courchevel to help Pinchuk — listed by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people — celebrate his 50th birthday Saturday evening.

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The guest list is a closely guarded secret, but President Clinton reportedly has been invited, Pinchuk having attended his 60th birthday bash in New York in 2006. Christina Aguilera, in France to promote her new film, “Burlesque,” also reportedly will attend.

Pinchuk, who also owns a media empire that includes six television stations and three newspapers, has one of the world’s largest modern art collections and is married to the daughter of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. He counts Elton John and Paul McCartney among his friends.

Guests will be served food prepared by celebrated French chef Alain Ducasse, along with vodka, vintage wines and champagne. Entertainment will include the famed Cirque du Soleil troupe, which is being flown in from Canada, and a full fireworks display.

But the event is not to everyone’s taste.

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“Six million dollars for a party ... it’s obscene,” said one skier in the resort, who was interviewed by telephone and requested anonymity. “It’s particularly scandalous because so many people in France are having trouble trying to make ends meet, let alone buy Christmas presents, because of the [economic] crisis.”

Mayor Gilbert Blanc-Tailleur insisted there was nothing shocking about the party.

“If this gentleman didn’t celebrate his birthday in Courchevel, he would no doubt go somewhere else abroad in a Swiss or Austrian ski resort. That would be a pity for our country,” he told the newspaper Le Parisien. “So it’s a good thing for France and for our resort, where the quality of services is well known and where it will give business to our hotels.”

He added that the Courchevel authorities had asked that 150 children be allowed to see the circus rehearsals.

Adeline Roux, director of Courchevel’s tourist office, agreed with the mayor. “It’s a private event so there’s nothing to say,” she told the newspaper.

Pinchuk’s media office refused to comment on the party.

However, a young chambermaid in the resort was not impressed.

“I slave away all winter for a miserable wage and then when I see how some people can spend millions in a single evening it disgusts me,” she told Le Parisien. “We are on another planet here.”

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Courchevel has been the preferred winter playground of billionaires from the former Soviet Union in recent years. Mikhail Prokhorov, the chief executive of Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel, hit the headlines in 2007 when French police raided the hotel he and friends were staying in at the resort. They arrested 25 people and accused Prokhorov of running a prostitution ring.

No charges were filed and Prokhorov was allowed to return to Russia.

Willsher is a special correspondent.


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