Actor Depardieu 'giving up French passport' in tax row
France's leading actor Gerard Depardieu said Sunday he is giving up his French passport after the prime minister called him "pathetic" for seeking to avoid taxes by moving to Belgium.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, the 63-year-old "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Jean de Florette" film star said he had been treated unfairly after years of supporting France and paying millions of euros in taxes.
"I am not asking to be approved of, but I could at least be respected. All of those who have left France have not been insulted as I have been," he said in the letter published in the weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.
Depardieu has joined some of France's wealthiest business figures in Belgium following moves by President Francois Hollande's Socialist government to tax annual incomes above one million euros ($1.3 million) at 75 percent.
In the letter, Depardieu, who has extensive business interests including wine estates and three Paris restaurants, accused the Socialists of driving France's most talented figures out of the country.
"I am leaving because you consider that success, creation, talent, anything different, must be punished," he said.
Depardieu said that over 45 years of working and running businesses in France he had paid 145 million euros to state coffers.
"At no time have I failed in my duties. The historic films in which I took part bear witness to my love of France and its history," Depardieu said.
He started working at the age of 14 and never claimed social security, the star added. "Who are you to judge me in this way?" he asked Ayrault.
Ayrault's comments came after it emerged that Depardieu had taken up residence in Nechin, a tiny village just over the border in Belgium, which is a favoured spot for wealthy French nationals avoiding tax.
"I find it quite pathetic," Ayrault had said. "Everyone loves him as an artist, but paying your taxes is an act of solidarity and patriotism."
The mayor of the area that includes Nechin, Daniel Senesael, told AFP that Depardieu had contacted him on Sunday morning "to ask how to obtain a Belgian passport and benefit from social security" in the country.
--- 'Deserting the battlefield' --
Under French law, Depardieu would have to obtain another nationality before formally renouncing his French citizenship.
Earlier this week real estate agents said Depardieu was selling his Paris home -- a 1,800-square-metre (19,300-square-foot) 19th-century mansion that boasts gardens and a swimming pool -- amid reports of a 50 million euro price tag.
Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti said she was "shocked" by Depardieu's latest remarks.
"French citizenship is an honour, it is rights and duties also, among them paying taxes in one's country to take part in the national effort against the economic crisis, it's an act of patriotism," she said on BFMTV.
Filippetti accused Depardieu of "deserting the battlefield in the war against the crisis".
Nadine Morano a former minister in the right-wing opposition party UMP, said she was "saddened" by Depardieu's decision, describing him as a victim of the government's "fiscal onslaught".
Laurence Parisot, the head of the French employers federation Medef, said the real issue was not Depardieu, "it is that today in our country a tax madness is at work."
Unlike France, Belgium does not impose a wealth tax. Its income and inheritance taxes are also lower.
France's richest man Bernard Arnault came under fire in September when it emerged that he had applied for Belgian citizenship. Arnault, the boss of luxury conglomerate LVMH, denied he was seeking to become a tax exile, saying he wanted Belgian nationality "for personal reasons".
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders stressed on Sunday that Belgium had not had a wealth tax since 1830, heading off any suggestion that his country was pandering to wealthy foreigners.
"I was finance minister for 12 years (between 1999 and 2011) and I don't see what measure I could have taken to attract the French," he added.
Hailed as one of the greatest actors of his generation, Depardieu has in recent years become as famed for his erratic behaviour as for his acting talents.
He had been due to appear in court on Thursday on charges of driving his scooter drunk through Paris, but the hearing was postponed.
In August he was cautioned after punching a car driver who had forced him to swerve on his scooter, and last year he generated global headlines when he urinated in a bottle aboard a plane as it prepared to take off from Paris for Dublin.
© 2012 AFP