• The Washington Post


Gerard Depardieu, one of France’s most beloved movie actors, has played memorable roles enshrining him as a monument of French culture: Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables,” Cyrano de Bergerac in Rostand’s kitsch classic and Obelix in a cartoonish spoof of wily Gauls resisting the Romans.

In real life, however, Depardieu has suddenly taken on a new role: filthy-rich tax dodger, dissolute ingrate and traitor to his country in a time of need. It is a role he did not seek, but it has made him an unlikely political star at a time when France is bitterly divided over the Socialist government’s efforts to pull out of an economic slump dragging into its fifth year.

After it became known Depardieu bought a house in Belgium to become what is called here a “fiscal exile,” Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called his conduct “tacky.” Labor Minister Michel Sapin said he was an example not of France’s cinematic accomplishments but of “personal degradation.” Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti accused him of “deserting the battlefield in a war against the economic crisis.”

President Francois Hollande tried hard to stay above the fray but could not resist a dig. “When someone loves France, he should serve it,” the chief of state intoned in a radio interview Friday.

What Depardieu did to deserve the epithets was acquire a graceless little home in Nechin, a drab Belgian village about 1 km or so over the border, in order, he acknowledged, to establish a foreign residence and escape at least part of France’s increasingly confiscatory tax rates. Moreover, when Ayrault denounced him for dodging the tax man, Depardieu responded with an outburst of swashbuckling anger worthy of the prickly Cyrano.

“Who are you to judge me that way, Mr. Ayrault, prime minister of Mr. Hollande, I ask you, who are you?” he demanded to know. Adding insult to injury in an instinctively nationalistic country, Depardieu added, “I hand you back my passport. . . . We no longer have the same fatherland.”

Depardieu, an outsize personality with stringy blond hair who turns 64 next week, has made dozens of films in a four-decade career, some regarded as artsy others as raunchy and not a little lowbrow. .

Over the years, as his stomach protruded steadily, Depardieu has become known as well for his real-life excesses. By now a barrel of gargantuan proportions with a swollen nose, cascading chins and an Rabelaisian appetite for food and drink, he was in the headlines recently for crashing his motor scooter while allegedly driving drunk down a Paris street. Before that it was urinating in the aisle of an airplane when the flight attendant told him he could not go to the toilet until after takeoff.

But to many Frenchmen, going overboard for good wine and fine food only made him more lovable. This, after all, is a country where TF1, the leading television channel, has devoted part of its main evening news broadcast this week to recipes for exquisite holiday dinners of truffles, oysters and foie gras.

In that spirit, Depardieu taunted Ayrault: “In spite of my excesses, my appetite and my love of life,” he wrote, “I am a free being, sir, and I will remain polite.”

In fact, the actor has also become a businessman, making him a natural enemy of the Socialist government and its punishing tax increases on income, acquired wealth and real estate profits. Although singled out as a bad example by Hollande’s ministers, he joins a list of French entertainment stars, sports figures or business tycoons who long before the Socialists took power in May had moved to Switzerland, Monaco or Belgium to get out from under traditionally high tax rates at home.

Depardieu owns several vineyards in France and abroad. In addition, he has acquired a stable of restaurants around the capital, where he often shows up at lunchtime to sample his own fare and titillate the customers.

He also owns a fish store in Paris and other little businesses associated with fine food. Nearby stands his multimillion-dollar home, which he recently put on the market for an undisclosed but heavily taxable price.

Employees said he showed up last week for lunch at one of his restaurants in a good mood despite the uproar. He claimed giving up his French passport was not a problem because he could get citizenship in Belgium, Montenegro or Russia. Asked about the claim in a Moscow news conference, an apparently amused Russian President Vladimir Putin said Depardieu had not applied but if he really wanted, “Gerard” could get a passport or residence permit for the asking.

In his open letter, Depardieu said he has contributed more than most to France’s economic health and had nothing to be ashamed of. About 80 people find employment in his businesses, he said, and he has forked over almost $190 million in taxes during the past 45 years. In this tax year alone, he said, the bill amounted to 85 percent of his income.

With those arguments, Depardieu enlisted support from the conservative political establishment, which has been complaining for months that Hollande’s tax hikes risk smothering private enterprise in France and driving out its most productive businessmen. Although firm statistics are unavailable, anecdotal reports from moving companies have mounted in recent weeks that a growing number of wealthy Frenchmen are seeking to leave the country or establish a legal residence abroad, without the Depardieu ruckus, perhaps, but for the same reasons.

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