Larger than life in every way, France’s most famous living actor has dramatically re ignited the debate in France over the government’s new tax measures.
The mayor of the Belgian village of Néchin, where Depardieu has bought a house, says the film star has now asked how to obtain Belgian citizenship.
Its the latest development in the story which has been the main topic of conversation in France this weekend.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Tuesday that Depardieu’s decision to settle in a Belgian village, one kilometre from the French border, for what are widely believed to be tax reasons, was “pathetic”.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault described film star Gérard Depardieu's decision to move to Belgium to dodge the 75 per cent top tax rate as "quite pathetic" on Wednesday.
Culture Minister Aurélie Filipetti also "deplored" it but ruled out a proposal by a Socialist backbencher to strip the actor of his citizenship.
Depardieu, extremely upset by the comment, penned an angry open letter to the Prime Minister, published by the newspaper Journal du Dimanche yesterday.
Ayrault has made no public response to the letter, but French ministers have been lining up to criticise Depardieu.
Ecologist parliamentarian Noël Mamère said on Monday that he thought that the eight million French people who live below the poverty line would be sickened by Depardieu’s move.
He noted that the film star had benefited during his career from the French “intermittents” system which cushions those working in the arts and entertainments sectors during their periods out of work. That system is financed by taxes.
Mamère also reminded Depardieu that the French film industry in which he had prospered over a lifetime’s career, was highly subsidised by French taxpayers.
Depardieu supported Nicolas Sarkozy’s unsuccessful presidential re election campaign and many on the right of French politics lament Depardieu’s departure, which they blame on the government.
“That Gérard Depardieu, symbol of talent and also of generosity, should leave, begs questions of us all” said centrist former defence minister Hervé Morin.
“Depardieu speaks for the majority of French people who do not recognise themselves in [this] government’s policy of discouragement. The confiscatory policy put in place six months ago results in the opposite of what the government wants: a reduction in revenue because of the old adage ‘too much tax kills tax’.”
Jean-François Copé, (contested) leader of the right wing opposition UMP, declared today that the Socialist government was “running France into the ground …stamping on talent, artists, creative people, researchers, entrepreneurs.”
French notaries, estate agents and tax advisors report an increase in all sorts of clients enquiring about leaving France, but Gérard Depardieu isn’t just anybody.
True, he has seemed a troubled figure in recent years, and has made several mediocre films. He is to appear in court shortly on drink-driving charges and there are numerous stories of erratic behaviour fuelled by alcohol.
But he has an almost tangible presence on screen and has delivered some of the finest performances in French cinema. It’s a huge blow for national self-esteem.
So far there have been no opinion polls on the matter, so its unclear how Depardieu’s move and his angry letter have gone down with the general public.
A ministerial advisor told Le Figaro newspaper that the row was unlikely to rebound negatively on Ayrault. “Depardieu is not as popular as people think. He’s more someone who almost everyone dislikes.”
Maybe. But despite his enormous wealth, and perhaps because of his many flaws, he does appear popular with ordinary French people. Many appreciate the fact that he reached the top despite a very modest start in life.
The row is unlikely to die down quickly.
Many French stars have left the country over many decades, (Charles Aznavour, Johnny Hallyday), and some have returned after a period in exile (Yannick Noah).
It’s difficult to collect accurate statistics but it is estimated that among the 200,000 French people living in Belgium, around 5,000 are tax exiles.
Around 1500 to 2000 people, including several top sportspeople and film and television stars, live in Switzerland for tax reasons, and the Swiss magazine Bilan lists 44 French people among the 300 wealthiest in the country.
What is different this time, is that those who leave cite a hostile climate, where they say they are expected to pay more than others because of their wealth, and then insulted anyway.
President Hollande and the Socialist government insist that the number of rich people leaving is small and say most demonstrate their patriotism by paying their taxes.
But in what is perhaps a sign of jitters, Hollande on Friday hinted that he would try to re negotiate tax conventions with Belgium, one of the most popular destinations for those fleeing France's tax laws.
Another option raised is harmonising EU tax laws, but that would be enormously difficult, and there would be fierce resistance from Britain and Ireland.
Or France could link tax to nationality rather than residence, so that French people pay tax to the French tax authorities, minus whatever they are paying in the country where they reside.
Such a system is already used by the American tax authorities, but it would involve France negotiating 150 to 200 separate conventions with different countries.
Whatever happens, Depardieu has injected theatrical tone into the tax debate. And as Le Figaro newspaper comments today, with doors slamming and opening as people storm out of France or return, (writer Michel Houellebecq), its all becoming like a Vaudeville farce.