Critics savage Depardieu's new role as tax exile
French politicians reacted with dismay on Monday after it emerged the country's leading actor, Gerard Depardieu, has taken up the role of tax exile in neighbouring Belgium.
The move is the latest chapter in the career of a star who is rapidly becoming as famous for his erratic and sometimes controversial behaviour as for his achievements on the silver screen.
Whether it has been urinating into a bottle during a flight to Dublin, taking an inebriated tumble from his scooter or associating with the daughter of a central Asian dictator, the 63-year-old has been generating headlines for all the wrong reasons in the last few years.
He was front-page news once more on Monday following confirmation that he has taken up residence in Nechin, a tiny village just over the border in Belgium which is a favoured spot for wealthy French nationals.
Local mayor Daniel Senesael suggested Depardieu had been drawn to Nechin by the attractions of country life as much as the fiscal shelter it offers.
"He wanted to find somewhere to stay in Belgium to escape French taxes but he could just as easily have settled in Brussels," the mayor told Belgian TV.
"He wanted to get out of Paris with all its noise and find a bit of peace and quiet."
Nechin's bucolic charm has already seduced a number of Depardieu's compatriots. A quarter of the village's population is French, among them the Meunier and Mulliez families, respective owners of the Carrefour and Auchan supermarket chains.
"It is sad because he is a great actor and someone I know and like," said Bertrand Delanoe, the Socialist mayor of Paris. "He is a generous man but in this instance he is not showing that."
Jean-Francois Cope, one of the leaders of the main right wing opposition group, the UMP, also expressed his regret, while pointing the finger of blame at President Francois Hollande's tax policies.
"I don't want to cast judgement but it is distressing for the country and its image," Cope said. "You don't see leading business figures or huge stars moving out of Belgium, Britain, Germany or Italy."
Depardieu's move into tax exile is a sensitive issue at a time when the French government has embarked on an austerity drive that will mean higher taxes for many middle-class citizens as well as the super rich.
Hollande, who famously declared "I don't like the rich" during his election campaign, has pledged to tax annual income of more than one million euros per year at 75 percent.
With the ability to command two million euros per film, Depardieu would almost certainly be hit by that, even if he did not have extensive business interests on the side.
Those include a vineyard and a chateau in the Loire valley, stakes in wine estates in France and at least five other countries, three Paris restaurants, a fishmonger and a production company.
As his business interests have mushroomed, so too have incidents of erratic behaviour, often involving alcohol.
Depardieu's settling in to village life in Belgium will have to be interrupted on Thursday, when he is due to appear in a Paris court on drink driving charges after falling off his scooter last month whilst three times over the legal alcohol limit.
In August, he was cautioned after punching a car driver who had forced him to swerve on his scooter. Last year he generated global headlines when he urinated in a bottle as a Paris-Dublin flight was taking off.
Depardieu has also been criticised for lending legitimacy to the autocratic regimes of Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov and Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov.
He has collaborated with Karimov's daughter, Gulnara, on a duet and has agreed to star in a planned Uzbek serial on the Silk Road which has been penned by her.
In October he attended Kadyrov's 36th birthday celebrations in a move which led to speculation the actor could be running short of cash.
© 2012 AFP