Thirty years ago, in one of his most celebrated films, the legendary French actor Gerard Depardieu played a brilliant impostor. During the wars of the Middle Ages, his character assumes the identity of a dead comrade, Martin Guerre, who has been many years away from home. When he arrives in Guerre’s village to take up with Guerre’s wife, does she really believe him? Do the fellow peasants? And even if they don’t, do they care? Who is this man, really? What are his motives? And what are those of the people around him?
In early December, Depardieu arrived in the little Belgian village of Néchin and declared he wanted to live there. He was fed up with French taxes that, he claimed, took 85 percent of his income last year. Over the past four decades the gloriously gluttonous actor, who just turned 64, became a living, breathing, eating, boozing icon of French culture, whether as a lusty lout in Going Places, the swashbuckling romantic Cyrano de Bergerac, or the rotund Obelix in the Asterix films. So, when his compatriots and fans heard the news of Depardieu’s defection to the other side of the border, many were appalled and angry. The French prime minister called the move “pathetic.” And Depardieu responded by saying he’d give up his passport.
Oh la la la laaaaa, as the French say when they’re disgusted. And American politicians, in their own death spiral over (much, much lower) taxes may be tempted to make analogies. But as so often happens in the annals of France’s rich and famous, as well as its films, things are not entirely what they seem.
For starters, the matter of tax rates: Much of the public and press assumed that Depardieu was plotting to escape his homeland because President François Hollande, a Socialist, was elected earlier this year promising to impose a 75 percent charge on income over €1 million a year. But France’s constitutional court shot down that law late last week for technical reasons. So one might think Depardieu could drop his plans for a Belgian exodus. But no. “That changes nothing,” he said in a brief statement to the daily Le Parisien.
The law turns out to have been so badly drafted that even left-leaning newspapers like Libération are now questioning whether the Socialists are competent to govern. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has said a rewritten bill will be submitted to the National Assembly—but not until the fall. Ayrault tried to downplay the fiasco by calling the measure “symbolic,” and “not very important for balancing finances.”
But it is precisely the symbolic importance of such measures that finally aroused Depardieu’s fury, because it affects not only the onerous percentages the rich have to deal with in France, but also the offensive perceptions. In an open letter to the weekly newspaper Journal du Dimanche in December, he said bluntly he was leaving the country because the government believed “success, creativity, talent—in fact, being different—should be sanctioned.”
As a wealthy French businessman and former diplomat explained to Americans at a recent dinner party in Paris, a fundamental difference between French attitudes and American ones lies in the French national motto, “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” “For Americans,” said the diplomat, “the most important word in that phrase would be ‘liberty,’ or freedom, but for the French the most important word is ‘equality.’” It’s a commonplace that the French typically envy wealth more than they admire it, and there is undoubtedly an ingrained assumption on the left that no one gets rich without making others poor. As a result, the discourse about taxes in France is marked by language that not only Grover Norquist, but also Barack Obama would find hallucinatory.
In concrete terms, the rich French face an accumulation of taxes that target them specifically in the name of “solidarity” with those who are less fortunate. In addition to the top income tax rate of 41 percent in effect last year, there is also the “solidarity tax on fortune,” or wealth tax, payable every year as a percentage of one’s net worth in France and abroad. When other taxes and charges are thrown in, it’s plausible, or at least possible, that Depardieu really did have to pay the government 85 percent of his revenues in 2012. (In Belgium the tax ceiling is 50 percent.)
The French typically envy wealth more than they admire it.
The Hollande administration’s infamous 75 percent rate was proposed for 2013 as a two-year temporary show of “solidarity” with a French government that is deeply mired in debt, an economy that’s at a dead stall, and unemployment that the new president seems powerless to alleviate. Its advocates like to point out a top tax rate of over 90 percent in the U.S. just after World War II. But the atmosphere in France today makes the 75 percent rate appear both punitive and punishing.
“Six French people out of 10 approve it,” declared Benoît Hamon, whose title is “minister of economic solidarity.” “It’s not about ideology but about justice,” he insisted, adding that “people who have nothing” have to face delays in benefits that would help them while “putting up with this long complaint from rich people who have gone beyond all limits of indecency.”
It’s obvious why Depardieu, who comes from a working-class background and has earned his own way in life since his early teens, would find this line of reasoning so offensive.
It would seem, then, that the poor, rich superstar will spend his days in boring little Néchin, just across the border in Belgium. But no. Tax “exiles” from France do not have to stay out of the country altogether. Very broadly speaking, they have to have their primary residence elsewhere and would be wise to spend more than half the year outside France’s borders. And unlike Americans, who have to pay their taxes to the Internal Revenue Service no matter where they live, the French who reside abroad are exempted. So, even though Depardieu has put his Paris mansion on the market for a reported €50 million, that’s not a sure sign he’s leaving for good. There are plenty of good rental properties to be had at the prices he can pay.
Over the holidays, the motor-scooter-riding actor has been spotted in Paris tooling around his favorite bakeries and cheese shops on the Left Bank with as much saucy insouciance as ever. And soon enough, the villagers of Néchin are likely to find their new resident is not the man, or at least not the Belgian, he claims he wants to be.