Gerard Depardieu emerges as poster boy for ‘global citizenship’

by Diane Francis

Gerard Depardieu

I’ve always enjoyed Gérard Depardieu as an actor, but his most recent role, as an international tax dodger, is pure Academy Award quality.

For those unaware of his theatrics, Depardieu left France last month in a huff over its proposed 75% income taxes on rich people. This is ironic: His surname in French sounds like it could mean “departure of God” in English.

Well “God” departed across the border to Belgium, which has the same cheeses and wines as France. Then, within days, Russian president Vladimir Putin publicly offered him Russian citizenship and 13% income tax rates. He accepted.

On Jan. 5, he flew to Sochi to get his new passport over dinner from Putin, failed to appear in a French court to face drunk driving charges, then flew off to plan a film he will star in as the notorious Dominique Strauss-Kahn of hotel maid infamy.

The Depardieu saga is not simply the most entertaining thus far this year, it’s also one of the most significant.

Talent and tax dollars are migrating to the highest bidder or the lowest rates, and this will increase

I call him the poster boy, or rather billboard, for post-nationalism, a movement that’s steadily undermining politics and nation-states. Increasing numbers of citizens have little loyalty toward their governments or countries and think nothing of moving to more propitious jurisdictions. This form of citizen-consumer is a trend that will accelerate and expand as people are able to head to greener pastures.

The Arab Spring was the intersection of citizen dissatisfaction and the Internet. But Depardieu is a different, more interesting, example of a person living well in a prosperous and peaceful country who thinks nothing of exiting. And he’s far from alone.

By 2012, about 250 million people were living in countries where they were not born. These were officially counted immigrants, migrants or refugees. Illegals would add tens of millions more. There are an estimated 12 million illegals living in the U.S. alone.

This represents at least one out of every 28 people in the world. But, more significantly, a recent global poll revealed that another 640 million would leave home if they could. That means one out of every seven people in the world is unhappy with their country. This means there is a global disconnect between nation-states and their charges, hardly surprising considering that most governments are incompetent, abusive or irrational entities based on concocted borders.

The lack of attachment poses the single biggest problem for politicians and policymakers everywhere. Talent and tax dollars are migrating to the highest bidder or the lowest rates, and this will increase.

In a goofy and somewhat cynical way, President Vlad Putin got ahead of the curve by offering his national passport as a loss leader to attract a rich taxpayer. The stunt was also designed to overshadow all the negative press concerning Russia such as its jailing of Pussy Riot and support for the Syrian and Iranian regimes.

As for Depardieu, he has become the world’s highest-profile jurisdiction shopper and he rationalizes this resonantly.

“I have a Russian passport, but I remain French and will probably have dual Belgian citizenship,” he told French TV last week while claiming to be a “citizen of the world.” “If I’d wanted to escape the taxman, as the French press say, I would have done it a long time ago.”

His beef was the socialist disdain for wealth and capitalism, not his lifestyle or tax rates. Clearly, he’s not suffered and just put on the market his Paris home for $66-million.

Interestingly, France’s 75% tax has been struck down as unconstitutional, but he’s long gone. Besides, President François Hollande pledged to tweak the wording and pass it this year. But such attempts, and shaming Depardieu, won’t work.

There is a global industry in facilitating immigration or migration of individuals, smuggling people illegally and moving money to secrecy and no-tax havens like Switzerland, Singapore and the Caribbean.

It’s important to distinguish between tax avoidance, which is legal, and tax evasion, which is not. So it was embarrassing that this week French officials announced there will be a preliminary inquiry into media allegations that France’s budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, evaded taxes. He has denied any wrongdoing and has sued the media outlet.

Equally embarrassing were reports following statements about tax avoidance by the rich made by Britain’s prime minister David Cameron whose country is no longer a tax haven. The Guardian broke a story that Cameron’s father made a fortune setting up offshore tax and other arrangements for wealthy Britons and corporations.

“His father ran a network of offshore investment funds to help build the family fortune that paid for the prime minister’s inheritance,” the newspaper wrote. The piece also raised questions as to whether the Cameron family inheritance remained offshore.

Canadians are no better and easily avoid taxes. The only fix is to require them to pay taxes wherever they live, as the Americans do, something I’ve argued in favour of for years.

But nothing changes even though Canadians and/or their money leave constantly. Most of New Brunswick is owned by a series of tax-free Bermuda Trusts on behalf of the Irving family, and former prime minister Paul Martin’s ship empire was based in Barbados, beyond taxation in Canada. Those are just two examples.

The rich and mighty have played such games since taxes were instituted, but the “global citizenship” movement is different. From now on, the migration of hundreds of millions of people around the world, based on their terms, will define the century and its politics.