Sunday, 16 December 2012

Gérard Depardieu isn't the only 'shabby' individual in France

"Who art the shabbiest Sire, ye or I?"
Gérard Depardieu is (was?) one of France's best-paid actors. His long career has seen him perform in 170 films and pick up two Césars for best actor as well as a Goden Globe for best actor and many other awards at film festivals around the world. The other side of the coin is his fiery personality and reputation as a heavy drinker, which have often led to some rather unflattering headlines along the lines of 'Depardieu urinates on floor in airliner/punches a photographer/crashes his scooter whilst drunk.' In other words, he is a rather singular man.

Enter the Hollande administration with its promises to tax the rich at 75%, introduce stiff new taxes for businesses and adopt a populist anti-rich stance, all of which were designed to extend Hollande's 'honeymoon period' after being elected. This policy has resulted in an exodus of wealthy French businessmen and others, who have left for kinder economic climes, taking their money with them and thus rendering the whole exercise relatively self-defeating. But no matter, the hunt for the rich is on and the government hopes that the public will notice and approve of its actions.

Depardieu joined the long queue to leave and eventually bought a house in a small town in Belgium just next to the French border. His decision resulted in a barrage of criticism from the government which reached boiling point last week when PM Jean-Marc Ayrault called his actions 'rather shabby', and incensed Socialists are now calling for people like Depardieu who leave the country for tax reasons to be stripped of their French nationality and made to pay a hefty 'exit tax.' Hollande has even gone so far as to bully his smaller Belgian neighbour and ask it to start taxing its rich residents more heavily.

Depardieu finally responded to the heavy flak today in an irony-laden open letter in the French press in which he denounces Ayrault's remarks, says that the government's anti-rich policies are punishing "success, creation and talent" in France and angrily declares that  he's sending his French passport back to the government in protest, giving up his French nationality, and forfeiting his rights to Social Security aid.

Now I am no fan of Depardieu believe you me, be it his acting or his personality, and his actions do indeed remind one of 'rats leaving the sinking ship' but this affair does at least have the merit of cristallising the ugly undercurrent of venimous class sentiment which has begun to permeate French society over the last year or so.

Things were bad enough under Sarkozy, when the country almost had a nervous breakdown so obssessed were the French about the polarising effect he was believed to be having on the country. This is why the French didn't so much elect Hollande as evict Sarkozy. They would have voted for your alcoholic neighbour as long as he or she was anti-Sarkozy.

But the atmosphere has become even worse since, and the current administration seems to be intent on using the rich as their whipping boy, their scapegoat for all that is wrong with the country. Of  course the rich deserve some stiff scriticism as well as more taxes and stricter laws on finance - after all, we're all paying more so why not them? - but the current and heavy-handed clumsy witch-hunt approach is not working, the public knows it, and it won't extend Hollande's honeymoon for long.

Take the vindictive words of the government's class-warfare militant and Minister for Industrial Renewal Arnaud Montebourg who, during the recent negotiations over the future of the Florange Steelworks and its jobs, acrimoniously declared that the company who owns them, Mittal, "was not welcome in France", that it "lied" habitually, that it owed "astronomical' sums of money to the taxman (without offering any evidence for either) and that "we don't want Mittal in France any more." He went on to unilaterally announce that the government would renationalise the site.

Montebourg and other ministers have shown a similar disdain for other large companies and rich individuals recently, but Montebourg's latest cack-handed outburst proved to be too much even for this government and president, who disowned his words for fear of a negative backlash from foreign investors, both current and potential.

The last thing France needs right now is to scare off investors by declaring full-scale war on them and the rich in general. This shabby rabble-rousing tactic is already blowing up in their faces and the government will regret it before next summer.

So where's the opposition, whose job it is to act as a democratic counterbalance to government? They are nowhere to be seen of course because their actions are just as shabby as those of their opponents.

The UMP has been hijacked by Jean-François Copé, its self-proclaimed leader who only sits in the party president's chair because of a blatant fraud perpetrated by his henchmen during the recent internal party presidential election. This man is arrogantly defying the wishes of the 80% of his party members and about the same percentage of the public who are demanding a rerun of the election. He is a political bandit whose banana-republic mentality is a disgrace not only to his party but to French politics as a whole.

Not that the Socialists can criticise them too loudly of course (and they have been wise enough not to moreover), because their own party leader was not even 'elected.' He was quite simply parachuted in as the head of the party by a troika of top Socialists who designated him during an hour-long secret meeting in some office or another in the parliament building. No internal election, no opportunity for rank-and-file members to express their preferences. If that's not shabby behaviour I don't know what is.

But perhaps the most illustrative example of boorish behaviour in French politics during this government's tenure came on the very first day of the new parliament, a day upon which all elected parliamentarians are held to respect the parliamentary tradition which demands that they all shake the hand of all first-time députés during a special welcoming ceremony. But they shamefully refused to follow this tradition of common courtesy and refused to shake the hands of the only two Front National députés in parliament, both of whom had been elected for the first time.

That was a disgrace. Make no mistake, I have no truck for the hateful policies of this, an extreme-right wing party, but whether we like it or not these two French citizens were given their parliamentary mandates by other French citizens in a free and open election, and all politicians in any civilised parliament owe it to those who voted for them them to respect the democratically-expressed decision of the people and refrain from ostracising legally-elected political opponents in such an insulting manner.

Yes, Depardieu's behaviour is reprehensible in some respects, and yes, tighter fiscal laws and control for the rich and big business must be introduced, and quickly, but when one looks at who is giving them lessons on civilised and respectful behaviour the only word which comes to mind is 'hypocrisy.'

The French word for 'shabby', or 'pathetic' is 'minable', and I can't begin to count the number of times I have discussed French politics, multinational business practice and tax-exiling rich elites with friends and others only to hear 'minable' used to describe them.

No wonder then that just under 80% of French citizens declare in polls that they are sick to death of the behaviour of their political and other elites, and no wonder either that the Hollande-Ayrault tandem has reached the lowest level of popularity of any administration since the beginning of the 5th Republic.

'Minable'? They all are, the whole lot of 'em, and I wouldn't trust any of 'em as far as I could chuck 'em.....


  1. i've been reading your blog for a long time now. You seem to have a very good handle on living in France and the French themselves. (I've been here 12 years). I've just spent the last hour or so reading in all the papers, French and English, about this Gégé affair and NO ONE has come to close to hitting the nail on the head as well as yourself.
    It seems to me the whole country hasn't a clue; is living in cloud cuckoo land and is heading in a very dangerous direction

    1. Hello Streaky, and this...

      "It seems to me the whole country hasn't a clue; is living in cloud cuckoo land and is heading in a very dangerous direction"

      ...shows that you are very well aware of the situation here. I don't know about you but I happen to think that at 59 one must be either naive or deluded to think that either the 'left' or the 'right' of the political spectrum in France or anywhere else has all the answers to our current woes. Which is why I find the absurd ideological posturing of those on either side of the divide to be an insult to the political intelligence of French people, most of whom know full well what's going on.

      It's high time this country's elites started looking reality in the face and dealing with it in an objective and efficient manner geared to major and inevitable long-term structural reform instead of scoring cheap ideological points and "behaving like petulant children", which is precisely what my 15-year-old god daughter quite rightly says they are doing.

      What is sadly lacking here - and it's the same in other major European countries - is politicians and political leaders with enough stature, courage and eloquence to inspire their people and deal with pressing problems in a pragmatic and intellectually honest manner.

      But instead of that we have the exact opposite in the form of a self-confessed 'normal' president and a self-emasculated opposition. Depressing. Or it would be if I wasn't now used to it.

      That aside, so, you've lived here for twelve years? Anywhere near Lyon perchance?

  2. Hi, I'm reasonably aware of the situation here but nowhere near as clued in as you. I don't really watch French TV anymore - usually people argueing and talking at the same time - so i don't follow it as closely as I should. Too depressing anyway. Things are just as bad in Britain but people don't seem to be as downbeat or angry as here.

    I particularly liked the way you saw that Depardieu is not totally whiter than white in this affair. It's true that he looks like a "rat leaving a sinking sink", but if someone was asking me to pay 85% of my yearly salary to the governemnt, I'd have to start looking at my options as well. Everyone else looks at this in either black or white terms - he's totally wrong or 100% right. It is complicated and appartently due to other factors like the treatment of his son and how people reacted when he fell off his scooter drunk. So I liked the way you could see both sides of the story.

    No one has said, "How come he stayed so long?" Am I wrong or did Charles Aznavour leave in the 70's? How much tax would he have paid in 40 years?

    And it seems to me that Britain went through all this 40 years ago when stars like Sean Connery left saying "I was the highest-paid actor in the world, and I didn't have a pot to piss in" - the top rate of tax being 98% - and Denis Healey's "squeeze the rich until the pips squeak".

    Yes, asking rich people to stay and show some solidarity is right - they ARE deserting us when we need them most - but isn't it also naive? The expression "trop d'impot tue l'impot" is not exactly new. And in the age of internet, high speed travel and open borders, isn't it even more true?

    But I'm no expert, and try to avoid talking politics with my French friends at all costs.

    Anyway, I live in Vannes in Morbihan. Done a few different jobs in my time but have settled into life as an English teacher at places like Greta and AFPA. Love my job and my students. Best wife in the world, perfect climate (for me) and now that I've British TV, well, things could be a lot worse.

    Please don't give up the blog. It always gives me a "it's-not-just-me" feeling.

    1. Agreed, it would be churlish of anyone to pretend not to understand the more valid reasons why rich French citizens are leaving the country, even if I am not rich. This government's policies are at the legal limit of what is called 'financial spoliation', and that principle was last applied in France to the Jews in World War Two. This government's ideologically-inspired war upon the wealthy is going to damage this country for a long time to come if they continue to wage it.

      I believe that France has missed a wonderful occasion to tackle the fundamental reasons which led to this economic crisis, not only in France but on a worldwide scale. Instead of pushing Obama and other national leaders and institutions to implement their promises (made at the time when the crisis peaked) of more global market and finance regulation he has ducked the challenge and cheaply resorted to a policy which is uniquely aimed at pleasing the French public. This policy is doomed to failure of course because France does not live in an economic vacuum and it is not immune from global market forces.

      Stigmatising rich individuals and corporations is counter-productive when taken to this extent and, given that Depardieu is breaking no rules or laws by moving to Belgium, has no legal basis. It's all bluff an bluster.

      Stripping Depardieu and others of their French nationality in these circumstances would be not only impossible under French constitutional law, but it would breach the EU's interpretation of the Human Rights charter. The same would be true of an 'exit tax.' In other words, all this is a waste of time, time the government would be better off using to address the country's problems.

      Ah, so you teach English in the Morbihan? I have been there many times and it's a beautiful region. And I used to teach English too, although translation now accounts for 80% of my work. Biggest bugbears for French students of English imho? The present perfect, their insistance on believing that the future is just 'will', that obligation is uniquely 'must', and their reluctance to express themselves, which is due to the French education system, based as it is upon the principle of punishing errors and black sheep.

      That which brings us nicely back to... :)

  3. You do indeed, know your stuff. Always interesting.

    I actually enjoy teaching too much to give it up. I have a blast and I'd damn near do it for free.

    What I find strange in teaching is that no one seems to have learned the easy way of telling the time (ten forty-five as opposed to quarter to eleven), some/any supposedly being used for countable/uncountable, saying "movie" instead of "film", etc.; I've nothing against Americanisms, it just seems that their teachers wanted everything to be more difficult than it should be.

    Which might also bring us back nicely to...

    Have a nice Christmas

    1. "... their teachers wanted everything to be more difficult than it should be. Which might also bring us back nicely to..."

      Indeed, and may I wish you and your wife a very merry Christmas too.

  4. how d'ya know I was married?

    1. How'd I know you were married? Well, my brilliantly analytical mind assimilated the words "Best wife in the world..." from your second comment above at the speed of a supercomputer and after considering all the possible avenues of syntaxical and logical deduction in that rather elliptical and allusive phrase in order to discover its fundamental meaning I came to the conclusion that there was just one possibility - that you were, in fact, married.

  5. Touché

    (Jusy back from me hols)

    1. Hols? I hope you and yours had a good time. About Depardieu et al, you are surely aware (I blogged on it moreover) that the 75% tax has been chucked out by the Senate. That which leaves Depardieu looking as daft as a peanut stuck on a barbed-wire fence?