One of my favorite films is the 1986 Jean de Florette, so when its star Gérard Depardieu was suddenly all over the newspapers here I was sucked into what is going on in the French economy. It turns out it’s the same thing that’s going on in the American economy.
Depardieu, who is a household name in France, will no longer keep a household there, having relocated a stone’s throw over the border in the Belgian hamlet of Néchin, which, although it does not have a theater, does not have a tax rate of 75 percent. French President François Hollande is furious, but Depardieu garnered support from many Frenchmen with a letter to Le Parisien explaining his departure: “… because you believe that success, creation, talent—difference, in fact—must be punished.”
The actor is part of a stream of exiles that includes rock stars, singers, tennis players, the CEO of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, and senior executives of buyout firms. What they have in common is their decision to escape the insatiable maw of the French socialist system and its “temporary supertax” on everyone with an annual income of more than a million euros (US$1.3 million). Destinations include Belgium, Switzerland, and London, all of which stand to gain from France’s folly. It is a replay of what happened under the country’s last socialist president, François Mitterrand.
The brain drain is also reminiscent of a far older exodus, religious rather than financial, but also resulting in long-lasting financial repercussions. In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which had granted freedoms to the Huguenots, Catholic France’s persecuted Protestant minority. The unforeseen consequence of scattering the best and brightest to England, Sweden, Switzerland, Brandenburg-Prussia, and North America (of a Huguenot population of 900,000, only 1,000 remained) was the loss of skills in the manufacturing of silk, silversmithing, watchmaking, cabinet making, plate glass making, etc. (“Il se met le doigt dans l’oeil.”)
Depardieu’s car mechanic near Néchin, Mr. Vandenhemel, told reporters, “We Belgians are not jealous and don’t mind people getting rich. … Jealousy is France’s national disease.”