As France plans to hike taxes on its richest citizens, the wealthiest man in Europe is making plans of his own -- to become Belgian.
Bernard Arnault, the French tycoon behind the luxury brands of Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Moet Hennessy, told the Agence France-Presse on Sunday that though he was seeking dual citizenship in Brussels, he wasn’t trying to dodge French taxes and would pay as usual.
The news nonetheless inflamed the debate in France as its new Socialist government prepares to levy a 75% tax on personal earnings over 1 million euros -- roughly $1.28 million -- a year.
Many were flatly unconvinced that becoming Belgian wasn’t a tax gambit. The French newspaper Liberation declared, “Get lost, you rich idiot!” on its front page, calling Arnault a symbol of selfishness. (Arnault announced Monday that he was suing Liberation for “public insult,” French media reported.) A communist newspaper declared Arnault could love France or leave it.
But the outrage over his words also spilled over political lines, as right-wing politician Marine Le Pen denounced Arnault for his “scandalous behavior,” France 24 reported.
If the media furor has been unkind to Arnault, it hasn’t left Hollande unscathed either. On the flip side, the news has underscored fears that the impending taxes could create an exodus of wealthy entrepreneurs as other countries openly court French millionaires.
“This will spread like wildfire. And all over the planet they'll say that France is the country that doesn't like success,” former Conservative Prime Minister Francois Fillon was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
The June legislative elections handed control of both houses of Parliament to the Socialist Party, giving the left more power than ever before in France and allowing Hollande a free hand to pursue his planned policies.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of LVMH Moet Hennessy - Louis Vuitton, presents the group's 2008 results in Paris on Feb. 5, 2009. Credit: Michel Euler / Associated Press