Famed French actor Gerard Depardieu, who had drawn headlines in late 2012 with a move to Belgium to evade France’s new 75 percent tax on the incomes of the wealthy, has now taken Russian citizenship and begun poking around for a home in the Republic of Mordovia. He apparently hopes to satisfy Russian residency requirements in order to pay its low income taxes.
Depardieu's choice of Russia, out of the world's many potential tax havens, is rather absurd. When the leading lights of France’s Socialist government had questioned the actor's patriotism and called him “pathetic,” he replied that he is a “free being” and that he has always paid his taxes honestly; the free, honest man now flees into the arms of the authoritarian and corrupt Putin government (having been greeted in Sochi by Vladimir Vladimirovich himself) and may take up residence in a region known for its prisons.
The move highlights the challenge that the modern global economy poses to ideas of citizenship and loyalty. New flows of wealth from state to state have created deeper prosperity, but also distortions—who would have expected small Caribbean islands to become centers of global finance? A small cosmopolitan elite mimics the money and hops from haven to haven.
For these “citizens of the world” (to use the title Depardieu bestowed on himself), nationality is not a matter of birth, identity and shared fate. It is instead approached like another investment, with pros and cons to be weighed: Russia has many troubles, but is a good buy at 13 percent of income annually; France has good schools and a great culture, but is pricey at 75 percent.
Yet despite his claim to being a cosmopolitan “true European,” Depardieu is still a Frenchman by birth, by culture, by language and by image. Russian citizenship is merely a mask to conceal himself from the taxman. Is he really willing to share in his new countrymen’s sacrifices, and not just their low taxes? It was one thing to take a long vacation to Belgium to call attention to the current government's waste. It is another to shack up with an autocrat in the name of personal freedom.
French president Francois Hollande and his allies hurl insults at the wealthy—they seem to believe that the only justified largesse in all France is that of the government—but they are not Hitlers. And even if they were, couldn’t the patriotic thing be to stand and fight, not to flee? Perhaps Minister of Labor (and distant Depardieu cousin) Michel Sapin was right when he called the actor’s renunciation of French citizenship “a form of personal degeneration.”