- Belgium - France - tax evasion - taxes
France's wealthiest man sues newspaper for calling him 'rich idiot'
France's richest man, Bernard Arnault, is suing newspaper Libération for public insult after its front-page headline on Monday ordered him to "Get Lost you Rich Idiot". The leftwing daily was objecting to his decision to seek Belgian nationality.
France’s richest man, billionaire Bernard Arnault, has come under fire from all quarters for his controversial decision to apply for Belgian nationality.
The decision by the 63-year-old head of the Louis Vuitton, Moët and Hennessy (LVMH) luxury goods empire to seek Belgian citizenship, has been seen by some as a first step to his future financial exile from France. It is an accusation Arnault has strongly denied.
Nevertheless, his decision has provoked a furious reaction in the press and among politicians.
Libération’s front-page headline on Monday screamed “Get Lost, you Rich Idiot”, in homage to the infamous outburst by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, a friend of Arnault’s, who memorably told a farmer to “get lost, you poor idiot”.
“Even if he denies he will go into exile for financial motives, Bernard Arnault’s request for Belgian nationality appears to be the symbol of selfishness by the most wealthy,” Libération added on their front page.
Arnault's lawyer announced that he was suing Libération for public insult over the headline, calling it vulgar and violent.
Arnault has refused to accept the slur and immediately ordered his lawyers to open legal proceedings against the paper for 'public insult'.
"Bernard Arnault has no other choice, given the extreme vulgarity and brutality," a statement from the billionaire's lawyers read.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, outspoken leader of the Left Front coalition of far-left political parties, was even more stinging in his attack on Arnault, saying "people like him were parasites”.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Mélenchon’s nemesis, the far-right National Front leader Marine le Pen, also waded into the row saying Arnault was guilty of “scandalous behaviour”.
Message to Hollande
Arnault’s move comes as President François Hollande announced a raft of tax hikes aimed at balancing the books. Hollande has insisted the current financial crisis puts an onus on the most wealthy to help drag the beleagured economy out of debt.
The president’s controversial 75 percent income tax rate for earnings over one million euros is due to be finalised later this month and will be included in the 2013 budget.
Hollande took the opportunity to remind Arnault of his duty during a televised interview on Sunday evening.
“Bernard Arnault should realise what it means to ask for another nationality… Being French is not just about receiving, it is about giving to your country,” the president said.
Arnauld insisted on Sunday that his application is not motivated by money, nor should it be seen as a political statement.
"I am and will remain a tax resident in France and in this regard I will, like all French people, fulfil my fiscal obligations," the world's fourth-richest man told AFP.
"Our country must count on everyone to do their bit to face a deep economic crisis amid strict budgetary contraints," he said.
However, he may have trouble convincing his doubters, especially given his history of walking out on France when the political landscape is not to his liking.
After the Socialist Party’s François Mitterrand triumphed in the presidential election of 1981, Arnault, whose fortune is estimated at 41 billion dollars, upped sticks and spent three years in the United States.
Heading for tax haven Monaco?
Despite Arnault's efforts to allay fears, France’s media has been full of speculation over the motives behind his decision to seek a Belgian passport.
Brussells-based tax lawyer Thierry Afschrift told French daily Le Parisien he was sceptical about Arnault’s motives.
“If the French government pursues an idea put forward by Nicolas Sarkozy to tax the revenues of French exiles around the world, then it would become an advantage to have dual nationality,” Afschrift said.
The financial landscape for billionaires appears much more amenable in Belgium with its lower tax rates, and unlike France, its neighbour does not have fortune tax. This may prove too tempting for Arnault, according to Afschrift.
Others tax experts have speculated whether the move is simply the first step towards him setting up in the tax haven of Monaco.
French citizens living in Monaco are bound by law to pay their taxes in France. But if Arnault simply renounces his French citizenship in favour of Belgian nationality, he will no longer be bound by such legislation.
France 24 with wires