Gallic woe as the symbol of France turns out to be a London resident

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The Independent Online

She is the symbol of France and her face appears on postage stamps and in every town hall in the country. However, Laetitia Casta has provoked outrage from her compatriots by choosing to live in London.

Only days after the first of 36,000 statuettes crafted in her image were unveiled, the 21-year-old model who will symbolise French virtues for the next decade disclosed that she had been renting a flat in London for the past three years.

Her self-imposed exile, which critics claimed was an attempt to avoid punitively high taxes in France, was seized on by politicians yesterday as it comes at a time of fierce debate on tax reform.

The right wing howled about the voluptuous Corsican beauty who had "fled the French socialist paradise" because of "fiscal harassment". The left wing mourned that she had turned her back on the mother country and warned that she would live to regret it.

Philippe Seguin, a leading figure in Chirac's Gaullist RPR (Rally for the Republic), said Miss Casta's decision to move to London was a "deplorable symbol" and likened it to the "third wave of emigration from France to Britain", after the Huguenots in the late 17th century, and the aristocrats during the revolution.

As a successful model, who is the face of L'Oréal and star of the latest Asterix film, Miss Casta earns about £2m a year. By moving to Britain she would expect to pay the top tax rate of 40 per cent instead of 60 per cent wealth tax across the Channel.

In an astonishing outburst, the French Interior Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevÿnement, said: "She will find out very fast that property prices are much higher in London, that you have to pay twice as much in rent. If she gets sick, and I hope she won't, the health care in a British hospital will be far short of French hospitals.

"If she takes the metro, although I doubt that will happen to her, she will realise that the London metro is nothing like the quality of the Paris metro. And should she choose to spend her retirement in England, she'll find the pension system is totally unreliable."

The Association of Mayors of France, whose 36,000 members elevated her to the figurehead position last year, was also incensed.

Its president, Jean-Paul Delevoye, called for a national debate on tax levels in response to her emigration and Jacques Peyrat, mayor of Nice, said if it was true Miss Casta had moved to London for tax reasons, he would refuse to put up her bust in his town hall.

Miss Casta, who succeeds such divas as Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot in the pantheon of Mariannes, appeared mystified by the controversy. Currently renting a flat near Trafalgar Square, she said at the weekend: "I can't see what's wrong with the Marianne moving overseas. She is a symbol of liberty and freedom. I see it as a way of promoting France abroad."

But yesterday as the enraged French politicians showed no signs of calming down, her agent Jean-Paul Cauvin, issued a statement saying she did "not plan to buy an apartment in London", and had "not decided to settle there for tax reasons".

He added that her decision to rent a flat in London wasjustified because of contracts she has with various British companies. Last February he was quoted as saying: "She loves London. She pays tax here rather than in France."

Her father, Dominique, said the French had been slow torealise that their figurehead had left, adding that she had been renting a flat in London for three years, long before she was even chosen as the Marianne. "She has not betrayed the national symbol," he said.

"It is a question of the free circulation of people and goods. Laetitia wanted Marianne to be 'free, wayfaring, international'." Brigitte Bardot backed her successor's decision. "I think she is right, and if I had the courage I would join her," she said.