Actor stirs up French tax exile row

By Kim Willsher

Film star accused of abandoning his country in its hour of need points to others who live abroad.

Gerard Depardieu has chosen to live in Belgium while Sebastien Loeb (left) and Richard Gasquet find Swiss tax rules more to their liking. Photo / AP
Gerard Depardieu has chosen to live in Belgium while Sebastien Loeb (left) and Richard Gasquet find Swiss tax rules more to their liking. Photo / AP

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 Gerard Depardieu after 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 Francois Hollande's planned "temporary supertax" on earnings of more than €1 million ($1.6 million) 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, Cesar-winning actor who lambasted his colleague in the pages of Liberation.

In an article entitled "So Gerard, are you pissed off?", 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 Cesar 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 eye 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.

Jerome Fourquet of pollsters IFOP said a survey last week showed that the French public was evenly divided over whether Depardieu was a victim or a villain, but that reactions were complex.

"A small majority, 54 per cent, think the Government's fiscal policies are too tough and are encouraging people to leave the country and 40 per cent sympathise with Depardieu. At the same time, 35 per cent 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."

Actor and comedian Jamel Debbouze, who starred with Depardieu in Asterix and Obelix in 2002, said he would never leave France, adding: "We have to pull together, show some solidarity."

The call was echoed by a blogger who said: "It's not about money, it's about honour."

Leaving France

... to Belgium
Gerard Depardieu - Has moved to Nechin and begun the process to acquire Belgian nationality
Paul-Loup Sulitzer - The writer said in October he was moving to Brussels but said it had nothing to do with avoiding taxes
Jean-Gil Boitouzet - Moved to Brussels. The founder of Bourse Direct said his decision was "not uniquely linked to tax reasons". He said "France is becoming depressed".

... to Switzerland
Alain Delon - The actor has lived in Switzerland for about 20 years and has dual nationality. "I am Franco-Swiss for genuine and legal reasons," he said.
Richard Gasquet - He is one of a number of tennis players living in Switzerland. In January he said he was considering returning to France when he retired in five or six years.
Sebastien Loeb - The rally driver is one of the few to admit that he lives in Switzerland for tax reasons. "When my lawyer showed me the comparison between the rates of tax in France and those in Switzerland, I fell off my chair," he said in 2010.

... to Britain
Christian Clavier - The actor and director moved to London but says it's not for tax reasons. "He has been systematically attacked because of his friendship with Nicolas Sarkozy, and he's had enough," said his agent.

Returning to France
Michel Houellebecq - The prize-winning author recently moved back to Paris after 10 years in Ireland.

-Observer

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