Bernard Arnault, tax, the rich and the French
France’s political class reacted with anger and dismay over the weekend to the news that Bernard Arnault, the richest person in France and the fourth richest in the world, was hoping to acquire Belgian citizenship for what are widely believed to be tax purposes.
Arnault, who is head of the LVMH luxury group, insists that he will remain domiciled in France where he will pay his taxes.
The news has spawned a separate news story involving the left-wing newspaper Libération whose front page headline on Monday Casse-toi riche con! provoked amusement among some, disapproval from others. (Inspired, of course, by Nicolas Sarkozy’s Casse-toi pauvre con at the Paris Agriculture Show in 2008, captured on camera and immortalised on Youtube.)
Arnault’s lawyer has announced that he is suing the paper.
The whole business has fuelled renewed debate over French tax laws - whether they are fair and sensible and whether they are symbolic or genuinely effective.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron embarrassed President Hollande when he declared gleefully in June, that he would roll out the red carpet for all the French people he expected to head to London to avoid Hollande’s new tax measures, which famously include a 75 per cent tax for those whose annual income exceeds a million Euros.
European Affairs minister Bernard Cazeneuve retorted that the patriotic rich would do no such thing - though just in case, he hopes to make bi lateral tax arrangements with key countries to limit any exodus.
But it may be too late.
In today’s Libération, an unnamed banker tells the paper that “everybody is leaving…those who no longer work are heading to Belgium and Switzerland, those who work go to Britain, where the tax system is more sympathetic.”
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.
In tough economic times there is little appreciation in any country for the super-rich who try to pay less into state coffers, when many poorer people are being asked to endure hardships.
The “Occupy Wall Street” movement and Spain’s “Indignados” are examples of mobilisation in other countries to express frustration at what are seen as the unacceptable excesses of capitalism.
But some in France are beginning to voice a feeling that here there is a particular dislike of wealth, and a prevailing politics of envy.
Right-wing UMP leadership contender François Fillon, while not happy that Arnault is considering Belgian citizenship, expressed concern on Tuesday at the opprobrium heaped upon him.
He said he did not think that journalists were in a position to give lessons in patriotism to “someone who has created thousands of jobs, who pays and and arranges the payment of billions of euros in tax, someone whose work is admired around the world.”
His main rival for the UMP leadership, Jean-François Copé, also talked of someone who had created the “biggest group in the world in the luxury goods sector” and lamented that “an ideology is overriding the much more important interests of the country, which are to create jobs and collect tax revenue.”
Some business people complain that they operate in a near-hostile climate of unhelpful bureaucracy and critical public opinion.
“It seems odd,” said one, “that so few people acknowledge that much of the money to pay for France’s impressive public services comes from the private sector.”
And often it is those services which naturally appeal to immigrants, rather than the opportunities available in France to build a successful business and make money.
Though US President George W Bush was rightly ridiculed when he said in 2002 that the French did not have a word for “entrepreneur”, the comparison with the idea of the American dream and his underlying point was not lost among some.
There is little celebration of entrepreneurship in France, particularly in the media.
There is no TV programme which fosters enthusiasm for business careers, such as Britain’s “The Apprentice”, and few household names who appear to be role models for the young, like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates in the United States.
And until recently, key French school economics text books, to put it politely, did not overly promote the idea of business.
Perhaps business people and the rich in France could help themselves more.
With a historically strong state, there is less of a tradition of philanthropy and sponsorship and in France, and such actions tend to be discreet rather than public demonstrations of citizenship.
François Hollande declared baldly on TV in 2007 that he “did not like the rich,” it never did him any harm.
When he announced his 75 per cent tax for the very rich during the presidential election campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy mused that while Hollande wanted fewer rich people, he wanted fewer poor people.
But the French didn’t buy it.