Thanks to French tax laws, Jean-Claude Van Damme may no longer claim to be the most famous Belgian actor alive.
In a fit of pique, French movie star Gérard Depardieu announced during the weekend that he would give up his citizenship after politicians and the media took him to task for moving to Belgium and avoiding an impending tax hike for the rich.
Mr. Depardieu is not France’s first fiscal refugee but his high-profile door-slamming so monopolized public debate that Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had on Monday to parse whether or not he had insulted the actor.
“I did not call Mr. Depardieu a loser, I said that it was loser-like [to move to Belgium to avoid taxes],” Mr. Ayrault told reporters.
“… In these hard times, it is important that everyone contributes to the best of his abilities to the national effort, that’s what real citizenship and patriotism is about.”
The “loser” comment seemed to have been the jab that stung Mr. Depardieu the most.
“Loser, did you say loser?” the 63-year–old actor began an open letter to Mr. Ayrault that appeared Sunday in Le Journal du dimanche.
Mr. Depardieu wrote that he had paid a total of €145-million in income tax in the last four decades and kept 80 people employed.
He added that he had been taxed at a marginal rate of 85 per cent this year.
“I am giving you back my passport and my social insurance, which I had never used. We no longer have the same fatherland. I am a true European, a citizen of the world.”
Mr. Depardieu’s resettlement became public two weeks ago when a local burgmeister, Daniel Senesael, told Belgian media that the French actor had moved to Néchin, a town a kilometre from the border between the two countries that already was famous as the exile home to the family of the French retailing tycoon Gérard Mulliez.
This came as Mr. Ayrault and President François Hollande were following on their electoral promise with a 2013 budget that will impose a 75 per cent tax rate for those earning more than a million euros a year.
Already, earlier this fall, France’s wealthiest man, Bernard Arnault, who controls the luxury brands Dior, Louis Vuitton and Moët Hennesy, confirmed he was considering Belgian citizenship but denied it was for fiscal reasons.
They weren’t the first high-profile expats.
The crooner Charles Aznavour, the actor Alain Delon and the rock star Johnny Hallyday also made headlines after they moved to Switzerland.
Asked in 2007 if he wanted to emulate them, the singer Michel Sardou famously mocked the Alpine resort where the once-rebellious Mr. Hallyday now resides. “It’s goddamn dull in Gstaad,” Mr. Sardou quipped.
Mr. Sardou made the same prediction last week, saying that Mr. Depardieu had made a “very clumsy” decision and would regret moving to Belgium.
“He’ll be bored like a rat. It’ll be divine justice,” Mr. Sardou told BFM-TV.
Once known for his cinema work, Mr. Depardieu has in recent years made more headlines because his immoderate lifestyle has led to a quintuple coronary bypass surgery, an arrest for drunken scooter-driving and getting kicked off a passenger plane after he emptied his bladder in the cabin while waiting for takeoff.
His critics alluded to those episodes when his Belgian exile became public.
Labour Minister Michel Sapin spoke of Mr. Depardieu’s “personal downfall.”
Libération front-paged a photo of the actor with the headline “Manneken fisc” – an allusion to the Manneken Pis, the landmark Brussels fountain with a bronze statue of a urinating boy.
A vitriolic editorial in the left-leaning daily described Mr. Depardieu as “a once great actor who has become an obese, wine-sodden Poujadist businessman” (Poujadism was a populist anti-tax movement in France, akin to the Tea Party.)
Right-wing politicians and newspapers however said the finger-wagging masked the fact that Mr. Hollande’s fiscal policies were headed for failure.
Some also noted that one of Mr. Depardieu’s major acting roles was that of Obélix, the sturdy sidekick to the French comic-book hero Astérix.
The actor who played Astérix, Christian Clavier, now lives in London because, according to his agent, he was tired of being criticized for his friendship with former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Thus, neither of the two men who portrayed the two Gauls who symbolize French resilience, still lived in France.