PARIS — Gérard Depardieu, one of France's most beloved movie actors, has played memorable roles enshrining him as a monument of French culture.
In real life, however, Depardieu has suddenly taken on a new role: filthy-rich tax-dodge. It is a role he did not seek, but it has made him an unlikely political star at a time when France is bitterly divided over the Socialist government's efforts to pull out of an economic slump dragging into its fifth year.
After it became known Depardieu bought a house in Belgium to become what is called in Paris a "fiscal exile," Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called his conduct "tacky." Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti accused him of "deserting the battlefield in a war against the economic crisis."
President François Hollande tried hard to stay above the fray but could not resist a dig. "When someone loves France, he should serve it," the chief of state intoned in a radio interview Friday.
What Depardieu did to deserve the epithets was acquire a graceless little home in Nechin, a drab Belgian village less than a mile over the border, in order, he acknowledged, to establish a foreign residence and escape at least part of France's high tax rates. Moreover, when Ayrault denounced him for dodging the tax man, Depardieu responded with an outburst.
"Who are you to judge me that way, Mr. Ayrault, prime minister of Mr. Hollande, I ask you, who are you?" he demanded to know in an open letter. Depardieu added: "I hand you back my passport. … We no longer have the same fatherland."
The actor has also become a businessman, making him a natural enemy of the Socialist government and its steep tax increases on income, acquired wealth and real estate profits. He joins a list of French entertainment stars, sports figures or business tycoons who long before the Socialists took power in May had moved to Switzerland, Monaco or Belgium to avoid traditionally high tax rates at home.