Gérard Depardieu is big in every way.
A big man (and getting bigger); a big talent; a big mouth. It is hardly surprising that his tax exile in Belgium has caused such a big fuss in France. And yet the scale of the fuss is rather surprising. It betrays the more than usually febrile mood of our nearest, and dearest, neighbours as they enter a year of many dangers.
Depardieu is hardly the first French star to seek tax exile abroad. The tennis champion turned pop star Yannick Noah lived in Switzerland for many years. Most French people shrugged. Noah remains one of the most popular people in France and an active and useful voice for the left. He was the warm-up act for campaign meetings by François Hollande in the spring when the future President defended his plan to increase tax on all marginal earnings over €1m to 75 per cent.
No one on the left has suggested that Noah’s past history of tax avoidance was “minable” (pathetic) – the word used by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault about Depardieu. Hypocrisy on the left is matched by hypocrisy on the right. Depardieu has been anointed by the right-wing Le Figaro this week as a martyr to the cause of wealth-making against the dead hand of socialism. In his own blistering open letter to Prime Minister Ayrault on Sunday, Depardieu declared himself to be the symbol of “a real and beautiful France”. He accused Mr Hollande and Mr Ayrault of “punishing success, creativity and talent”.
Creativity, Gérard, you said creativity? Depardieu is the greatest French movie actor of his generation but he has wasted his talent for decades making cinematic clunker after clunker (up to six in a single year), many of them subsidised by the French state.
To help to fund his expensive and often obnoxious lifestyle, he has also become the well-paid celebrity PR man for some of the nastiest people on the planet. This month, Depardieu provided backing vocals to a pop song by Gulnara Karimova, the socialite daughter of the Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. Gulnara’s papa is accused by human rights groups of boiling his opponents alive. Not even Vladimir Putin, Depardieu’s other great pal who has offered the actor Russian citizenship, would go quite that far.
Strangely, Depardieu’s liaisons dangereuses (and liaisons très bien payées) have scarcely been mentioned by his critics on the left this week. He has been made the whipping boy for a new class of wealthy French émigrés for other reasons. First, he was a high-profile supporter of the deposed president Nicolas Sarkozy. Second, he chose to go into tax exile in Belgium – something which irritates the French far more than tax exile in Switzerland or Britain. To be told that their oft-sneered-at and allegedly chaotic northern neighbours have become a tax haven for the rich has an irrational power to infuriate the calmest Frenchman.
It also makes the Belgians suspicious. Bernard Arnault, Europe’s wealthiest man, looks likely to be refused Belgian citizenship. Johnny Hallyday (although half-Belgian) was refused a few years ago. The Belgian vetting committee perhaps suspects that the new-found French desire to be Belgian is not explained by love of chocolate or chips. Belgians pay no tax if they live in Monaco. French citizens do.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been a definite increase in wealthy emigration from France since Mr Hollande came to power. Sales of top-class appartements in Paris have increased by 30 to 75 per cent in the poshest areas of the city in the past year.
But the flood began before Mr Hollande was elected. It is explained partly by the fact that rich French people can no longer cheat the tax-man so easily while remaining in France. There has been an official crackdown on money-laundering. The French press – especially the aggressive new investigative websites – have started to look into the tax affairs of the famous and wealthy.
One of them, Mediapart, recently alleged that Mr Hollande’s budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, once had a secret bank account in Switzerland. Mr Cahuzac, formerly a wealthy plastic surgeon, denies it. Mediapart insist that it has proof. One of Mr Cahuzac’s main tasks in government is to lead a crusade against … tax evasion.
But there is another reason why “L’Affaire Depardieu” has exploded in the way it has. Most French people, right or left, are instinctively statist: they believe in the importance of state institutions and state intervention. But French approval of the state has not extended to paying for all its services and excesses. No French government, right or left, has balanced a budget since 1973.
It has fallen to François Hollande, instinctively a muddle-through politician, to present the bill for four decades of evasion of responsibility. He promises to reduce the deficit to zero by 2018. The French economy is stuttering and threatening to stall in 2013. The tax hikes on the wealthy were politically indispensable to balance a squeeze on spending and keep the left off Mr Hollande’s back. The left is on his back in any case. So is the right.
Everyone recognises that next year could be deeply painful, even calamitous, in France. Mr Depardieu’s flight to Belgium is a flight from responsibility and a flight from reality. Many French people wish they could do the same. Most realise that they cannot.