Business, Economics and Jobs

In Belgium, Gerard Depardieu gives Frenchmen a bad name


French actor Gerard Depardieu in Montenegro on Jan. 8, 2013.


Savo Prelevic

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Ask a Belgian who makes up his country's largest immigrant population, and chances are he'll think of Moroccans, Turks or Italians — after all, even Prime Minister Elio di Rupo had Italian parents.

In fact, the French now outnumber other foreign groups in Belgium, with some counts saying 200,000 Frenchmen living in the kingdom of 10 million.

In the capital Brussels, official figures show 5 percent of the population is French, but some estimates say the real number is closer to one-in-10.

Since they speak pretty much the same language as most-native Brusselers, the French generally have a discreet presence.

But the community has been thrust into the media spotlight by movie star Gerard Depardieu's plan to settle in Belgium to escape French taxes, and the efforts of France's richest man, Bernard Arnault, to seek Belgian nationality, allegedly for similar motives.

"Brussels is the tax paradise for the French," said a recent headline in the French daily Le Parisien. "Exodus to Brussels by the wealthy French," proclaimed the La Libre Belgique paper on the other side of the border.

"Most French people here don't recognize themselves in the picture that's painted of them in the French media. There has been a stigmatization due to a few tax exiles," says Philip Cordery, the lawmaker elected to the French National Assembly to represent expatriates living in Belgium, along with smaller communities in Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

In an interview, Cordery says just 2 percent of the French in Belgium are tax exiles, adding that 2.6 percent live below the poverty line.

Additionally, Cordery points out that most salaried employees in Belgium pay higher rates of income tax than those south of the frontier.

Aside from the tax exiles, Cordery says French students flock to Belgian universities to study medicine or architecture where places are limited in France; workers commute to jobs in northern French towns from homes over the frontier, where property prices are lower; graduates seek a future in Belgium's growing tech sector; retirees and the handicapped are attracted by the high level of healthcare; French Muslims live among Brussels' North African communities.

"It's very varied, the population here is a reflection of French society," says Cordery, a Socialist whose office is in Brussels' gritty inner-city St. Josse neighborhood. "The French living here have the same difficulties and successes as everybody else, they are normal members of society."

Brussels greatest concentration of French residents is however in plusher areas across town. The leafy avenues of the "Little Paris" around Place Brugmann, with its art nouveau townhouses, pavement caves and chic boutiques are certainly a step up from most immigrant neighborhoods.

On weekend mornings, the Gaudron cafe buzzes with the Parisian accents of its well-heeled clients — many reading Le Figaro over their cafe and croissants or stocking up on fresh-baked baguettes and unpasteurized camembert from the store out front.

When politicians proposed compulsory "integration" lessons to teach Belgian values to immigrants after incidents involving extremists within the Muslim community last year, one comedian quipped that French ex-pats should be taught to develop a passion for fries and swap wine for Belgium's famous beers.

Mostly, French citizens say integration into Belgian society is easy despite the slower pace of life in Brussels.

"I have trouble coping with Paris when I go back," says Nathalie David, who moved to Brussels in 2005 and works in urban planning. "Life is much less intense here, it's smaller and it's much more calm. It's also very international and the Belgians are very welcoming."

For newcomers, some aspects of Belgian life can be daunting, especially the country's linguistic complexities. Laetitia Dettori, who blogs about expatriate life, is jobless after moving to Brussels a year ago to follow her Belgian boyfriend.

"I've got mixed feelings about Brussels," she explains. "If you don't speak Dutch, it's very difficult to find a job. I'm trying to learn, but I never realized it was so important. I thought speaking French and English would be enough."

Although French is a more widely spoken language in Brussels, Dutch also has official status in the capital and many employers want their staff to speak both.

As she struggles to find work, Dettori is angry at the likes of Depardieu for perpetuating a false impression about Belgium's French expats.

"Already the Belgians don't always have a good impression of the French, they think we're full of ourselves and complain all the time," she said.

"Now everybody thinks the French who come to here are super rich... Depardieu's a jerk, even if he pays more than 50 percent in taxes, he'll still be rich."

After Russia's President Vladimir Putin granted Depardieu a Russian passport on Jan. 3, it's not clear if the actor will be moving to a home he purchased in southern Belgium. However, the influx of French tax exiles looks set to continue.

Le Figaro reported last month that the number of French citizens requesting Belgian nationality increased sharply as President Francois Hollande pushed ahead with plans for the 75 percent tax on annual wage income over a million euros ($1.33 million).

The tax measures were blocked by France's Constitutional court on Dec. 20, but the government is planning to produce a revised bill later this year.