France debates high taxes as its symbol flees them

Her nation is stung as model emigrates to escape 52.9% rate

April 10, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

PARIS -- In American terms, it's as if Uncle Sam had fled to Fidel Castro's Cuba to escape the IRS.

Enter any of the 36,000 town or city halls in France, and you'll find a bust of Marianne, the embodiment of France and its republican virtues. In the past, screen beauties such as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve served as the models. In October, Laetitia Casta, a 21-year-old cover girl and actress from Corsica, was chosen to personify the next generation of Mariannes to be cast in bronze.

Imagine the scandal, then, when a newspaper on the other side of the English Channel reported last week that Casta had chosen to live not in republican France but in London, the seat of the British monarchy, to avoid high French taxes.

"This symbolizes magnificently the failure of socialism, which has managed to chase all talents out of the country," said Patrick Devedjian, a spokesman for the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic party.

Fellow party member Philippe Seguin, contender for the Paris mayor's seat, said the Socialist-led national government's tax policy has sparked a "third great period of French emigration," following the exodus of the Huguenots under Louis XIV and the flight of aristocrats during the French Revolution.

For many French, what really stung was Casta's supposed choice of England, once their hereditary foe. Had that choice been tax-friendly but French-speaking Monaco, there would have been much less comment. Moreover, many French believe that if they pay a good deal in taxes, they get something back: excellent public transportation, a public health care system and other social services.

"Laetitia Casta will soon find out ... that property prices are much higher in London and that you have to pay twice as much in rent," said left-wing Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement. "If she gets sick, and I hope she won't, the health care in a British hospital will be far short of French hospitals."

Debate on taxation has swept France, and Finance Minister Laurent Fabius, appointed March 27, has vowed to bring relief.

How high are French taxes? It might be some consolation for Americans wrestling with their 1040 tax forms to know that the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that, on average, the marginal tax rate on the income of a single person without children, such as Casta, is 34.9 percent in the United States but 52.9 percent in France. In Britain, it says, the average marginal rate is 39.9 percent.

"Reductions in taxes, and not only on income, must expand in the future, and I'm going to work for them," Fabius vowed last week. Many French business leaders believe that if their country is to be competitive in a fast-integrating Europe and the world, the government is going to have to take a thinner slice of the national wealth.

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