There is no hiding place in France for anyone who wants time off from Gérard Depardieu, or Georges, the insidious, attractive fortysomething we remember in Peter Weir’s Green Card (1990). The idea that Depardieu has gone or is going anywhere is endlessly tantalising: he has never been more insistent, more palpably at home or preposterous than he is now, as he promises the French he’ll be waddling off in blue-and-white striped pantaloons as a traduced Obelix (1999, passim) lugging a menhir of tax-free earnings. Belgium? Russia? It doesn’t seem to matter where he goes. Those enormous Gallic buttocks keep failing to disappear over the horizon.
He was, we were told, inquiring about Belgian residency. If you have the money, you can even acquire Belgian nationality. But who wants to be a Belgian? Only Victor Serge, perhaps, born in Brussels to anti-tsarist exiles and deported in 1909, a teenage anarchist firebrand with no money to shovel to the right people. When he made it to the Soviet Union, Stalin stuck him in jail, twice. Depardieu is presentably pre and post-Bolshevik, obstreperous and lovably given to food and drink, the right man for a country like Russia with a flat rate of income tax. And so, on 6 January, at Putin’s invitation, Depardieu flew to Sochi on the Black Sea to get his passport and went on from there to Saransk, the provincial capital of Mordovia, where the governor offered him a post as minister of culture. Depardieu declined. He knew nothing of the culture, he protested, which suggests he hadn’t time to sample the regional cuisine.
Maybe he should reconsider. Imagine a minister of local culture who is also a national star of revivalist Russian cinema. Depardieu has already tested the water. In Salzburg in 2010 he took the role of narrator in a performance of Prokofiev’s oratorio Ivan Grozny (Op. 116), arranged by Abram Stasevich and based on Eisenstein’s texts for the films. Having played the lead in a French version of the 1950 Hollywood Cyrano de Bergerac, he is an old hand at remakes and might prevail on the Russian Cinema Fund to support a new Alexander Nevsky, squeezing himself into the lead – though who knows whether the ice on Lake Peipus, which held two armies for several hours, would bear up. There is surely a role, too, for Brigitte Bardot, another treasure of the French screen who has sworn to follow Depardieu and apply for a Russian passport unless a French court decision to put down two circus elephants with TB is overturned. A new Battleship Potemkin that restages the 1905 Revolution as an animal rights struggle might have Bardot as the screaming governess on the Odessa Steps with a pram full of baby seals, stray dogs and orphaned gerbils.
This lumbering French march on Moscow has not prompted anyone to think very hard about taxation in general. If we keep hearing about Depardieu, my neighbours insist, it’s because we’re not being told the things we really need to hear. Such as what? Well, for a start there’s the fact that 40-50 per cent of households don’t pay income tax, either because they’re below the earnings threshold or because they have a range of exemptions, and of course dependants. Imagine a sole earner in a household with an unemployed partner and two children. She earns a salary of €17,000 gross. For tax purposes the household is counted in ‘parts familiales’: she is one part, her companion is another, and the children are each 0.5, making a total of three, which gives the revenue office a figure of €5666 per part: the tax due on that figure would be multiplied by three. But it is about €200 below the lowest band, meaning the household isn’t liable. If the same earner was single, she would be the only part of a one-part household. Her income of €17,000 would be divisible by one, and roughly €4000 of her salary would be taxable at 14 per cent. As the French economy hovers in near recession, more and more people fall below the taxable threshold. Many still have to pay stiff hypothecated levies, for pensions and social security, but in France income tax is the second highest source of non-earmarked state revenue after VAT and the gap between the two is closing as the government tries to avoid increasing indirect taxation.
But the pressure is on: where will Hollande find the money to keep up the courtesies of social democracy (a bit like directing a costume drama) when unemployment is predicted to average 10.5 per cent in 2013, and the number of people in poverty – non-taxable, net receivers – is the highest for 16 years? Not from Depardieu, a man of many parts (among them Danton and Joseph Fouché, a Jacobin enemy of wealth and intemperance), who has evidently had enough of the French exchequer. Besides, the constitutional council has struck down the president’s super tax on the grounds that it is unfair, applying as it does to individuals rather than households. (The government is rethinking it now.) And not from the corporate sector: in November Hollande announced a gift of €20 billion in tax credits to big businesses, in the hope of offsetting labour costs and creating jobs. Nor is there much to expect from the last government’s austerity measure, which would have raised income tax across the board by about 2 per cent. Hollande has kept the mechanism, but announced a rebate for lower income brackets: as a result fewer than half the foyers fiscaux in France – 36 million in all – will see their tax go up.
On the disparity between wealthy and disadvantaged, a source of dismay in France, everyone has their own thoughts: the left tears its hair out, while the right is at the airport, dressed in fluorescent orange, waving the ping-pong bats in a told-you-so kind of way as Depardieu’s plane taxis off the apron. Fluorescent orange is rapidly doffed in favour of funeral black as conservatives mourn the loss of a great national asset. But the Republic still has a parable of inclusiveness that it wants its citizens to hear. Those who listen take a dim view of anyone opting out on grounds of wealth, and it doesn’t help Depardieu’s case that the super tax – 75 per cent on earnings over €1 million – was supposed to be a short-term measure obliging the very rich to put out for a couple of years.
This has been a colourful story. It’s whirled along and caught up some strange characters, including Jean Michel Jarre, Bardot and her circus elephants, Putin, and a minor dignitary of Mordovia, where one of the Pussy Riot crew is serving time. It’s also led to a heated debate about actors’ fees and the costs of French cinema production. But it doesn’t shine much light offstage, where 19 per cent of young people are living in poverty, five million people or more cannot open a bank account and 3.6 million are inadequately housed or homeless. Depardieu has chosen self-exclusion and he’s endlessly, tiresomely visible. Social exclusion in France is less of a spectacle.