Gérard Depardieu Stirs Belgian Border Town

“I thought it was a joke,” said the mayor, Daniel Senesael, recalling his disbelief when he was first told that Mr. Depardieu intended to leave his mansion in Paris and move to Néchin, a rural settlement in Belgium with just 2,200 people, two cafes, a fast-food fry shop, a ruined chateau and no cinema.

“Let’s be honest, this is not Las Vegas,” Mr. Senesael said. “There are no lights and no discos. I get flooded with complaints when anyone suggests opening even a wind farm.”

Michel Sardou, a veteran French singer who has joined a frenzy of criticism directed at Mr. Depardieu in France, mocked the actor’s flight to Néchin, predicting that he would be “as bored as a rat” here. “So, there is some divine justice after all,” the singer joked on French television.

For Mr. Depardieu, and scores of wealthy French citizens who already live here, however, Néchin does have one seductive asset: it is beyond the reach of the French tax authorities but so close to France that an unmarked border running through the village puts the gardens of some properties in France and adjoining houses in Belgium.

“Our geographic situation makes us very attractive,” said Mr. Senesael, noting that Néchin is an easy place to get into and out of, with a nearby airport, a major highway and a railway station just a few miles away in the French city of Lille with regular high-speed trains to Paris, Brussels and London.

“Nobody should be astonished that big fortunes have found a certain fiscal advantage” in moving to this side of the border, said the mayor, whose domain covers Néchin and a cluster of other hamlets that form what is known as the Entity of Estaimpuis. Mr. Depardieu’s critics, he said, should direct their ire not at the actor but at the failure of European governments to harmonize tax rates across the 27 nations of the European Union.

A customs post and border guards disappeared decades ago from the end of Néchin’s main street, swept away by Europe’s effort after World War II to break down barriers that led to past conflicts and to allow for the free flow of goods, services and people.

Still firmly in place, however, are rigidly defined tax frontiers that mean that people living just a few yards from one another can pay vastly different levels of tax, particularly if they happen to be wealthy.

Belgium has higher income taxes for most people than in much of Europe, but the country is much easier on the rich than France, where the government of President François Hollande has announced a “temporary supertax” of 75 percent on annual incomes of more than 1 million euros, or about $1.3 million. France’s Constitutional Council on Saturday declared the tax unconstitutional, prompting the government to announce that it would introduce a revised version next year. France also has a “wealth tax” on assets worth more than $1.7 million, something that does not exist in Belgium, as well as far higher taxes on capital gains and inheritance.

“We’ve abolished border controls but not all the other stupidities,” said Philippe Vandenhemel, the owner of a garage just outside Néchin that sells and repairs imported American cars and was visited several times by Mr. Depardieu. (The actor apparently likes old American cars.)

Mr. Vandenhemel scoffed at attacks on the movie star by French politicians and commentators. “If I were in his shoes, I would do exactly the same thing and leave,” he said. Mr. Depardieu, he added, will benefit not only from lower taxes in Belgium but also from the fact that “we Belgians are not jealous and don’t mind people getting rich.”

“Jealousy is France’s national disease,” he said.

Mr. Hollande, who made a pledge to squeeze the rich to help reduce the government’s budget deficit a cornerstone of his successful election campaign this year, once said on television, “I don’t like the rich.” His right-wing predecessor and rival and in the May election, Nicolas Sarkozy, lost in part because he flaunted a liking for expensive watches and other accessories and the company of rich friends, a habit that earned him mockery as “Le Président Bling-Bling.”

Scott Sayare contributed reporting from Paris.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/30/world/europe/gerard-depardieu-stirs-belgian-border-town.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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