France is discovering that, when it comes to wealthy taxpayers, you win some – and you lose some.
As the country’s celebrities have lined up to defend or denigrate actor Gérard Depardieu following his self-imposed fiscal exile in neighbouring Belgium, the French have just welcomed back prize-winning author Michel Houellebecq after more than a decade living abroad.
The tax row sparked by Depardieu’s departure has divided France – and not simply along traditional left-right, north-south or rich-poor lines. Fans and critics have spent the last week fretting over the morality of his decision and whether concepts of patriotism and solidarity outweigh those of personal gain and perceived greed.
Even after weeks of speculation, the announcement a fortnight ago that Depardieu, 63, was moving to Belgium to take refuge from Socialist president François Hollande’s planned “temporary supertax” on earnings of more than €1m (£815,000) came as a shock to fans.
The prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, described the move as “shabby”, provoking a furious response from Depardieu (“who are you calling shabby?”), and from Philippe Torreton, a leftwing, César-winning actor who lambasted his colleague in the pages of Libération. In the article, published last week, Torreton, 47, wrote: “You no longer want to be French? You are leaving the French boat in the middle of a storm? Did you think we would approve? What did you expect? A medal? An honorary César from the finance ministry?
“The prime minister considers your behaviour shabby, but you, you consider it what? Heroic? Civic? Altruistic? Tell us. We would like to know.”
Singer Michel Sardou, 67, declared himself on the side of the patriots and warned Depardieu that he would be “as bored as a rat” in Belgium. “So there is some divine justice,” he joked, adding: “If I said, ‘Guys, now you’re in the shit. Excuse me but I’m taking my dosh and getting out of here’, I couldn’t look myself in the face.”
However, the debate has moved beyond what some would call an act of betrayal by the star of French films such as Cyrano de Bergerac and Danton. Film director Claude Lelouch said Depardieu was lucky to pay high taxes because it showed he was a success. “It means things are going well,” he told BFMTV.
And after Depardieu pointed out that he was not the only French celebrity to want to minimise his tax bill by moving abroad, the newspaper Le Parisien produced an interactive map showing he was right. It revealed Switzerland as the country of choice for fiscal refugees, including national treasures such as actor Alain Delon, singer Johnny Hallyday and a colony of tennis players and sports stars.
Then came news that Alain Afflelou, the wealthy head of a chain of French opticians, was moving to London, ostensibly to expand his business and “absolutely not for tax reasons”.
The backlash against the backlash sent a number of cinema greats, including Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, rushing to Depardieu’s defence, appealing for an end to “Depardieu bashing”. And the reclusive Houellebecq, who might have hoped that his return from a decade in Ireland would have gone largely unremarked, has found himself at the centre of the storm. “It is true that money is important, but it is not what is most important. The main reason is that I want to once again speak my language in my daily life,” he wrote.
Jérôme Fourquet of pollsters Ifop said a survey last week showed that the French public was divided over whether Depardieu was a victim or a villain, but that reactions were “complex”.
“A small majority, 54%, think the government’s fiscal policies are too tough and are encouraging people to leave the country, and 40% sympathise with Depardieu. At the same time, 35% told us they were shocked by his leaving, so it’s not clear cut,” he said.
“Depardieu is symbolic, he is a well-known actor and is admired and held in great affection by the French. This emotional response means, while people may understand why he wants to go, they still think he shouldn’t, because it’s his country, and because of the idea that France needs him and it’s not fair for people like him to take their money elsewhere.”
Fourquet said an Ifop poll two years ago showed that 50% of people thought the rich were not being taxed enough. The same poll carried out recently showed that figure had fallen to 30%. Jamel Debbouze, 37, who starred with Depardieu in Astérix and Obélix in 2002, said he would never leave France, adding: “We have to pull together, show some solidarity.”
The call was echoed by a blogger called L’Aventure Moderne. “Depardieu is all that we, small people, are not. That’s why his exile upsets us so. At the end it’s not about money, it’s about honour. Don’t abandon us. France needs you.”
“France needs you.” Yeah, riiiiight.
If “the small people of France” truly need Gérard Depardieu, they can put their money where their mouth is. Let’s see them vote in a conservative government, cut taxes and spending, and thereby give him some reason to return.
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