I don't really care about Gérard Depardieu. He's a magnificent actor, and apparently a rather silly person. He probably eats too much. And yes, his on-board airplane decorum makes Alec Baldwin look like Taylor Swift. But I don't spend many of my waking hours worrying about it.
Yet his entirely voluntary decision to forsake his French citizenship and get a Russian passport instead has made for a pretty interesting story. It's made a lot of people angry, though it's also pleased a few fans (like Vladimir Putin). It's certainly been a boon for the French press, who have been happy to spotlight every twist and turn of the whole saga, often referring to the man in question as "the Mordovian Depardieu" (a reference to the province that offered him a job as culture minister shortly after the actor became a Russian). His decision to get himself an additional residence in Belgium, of all places, merely added fuel to the flames.
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The reactions to all this have taken intriguing forms. One U.S. magazine compares the former Frenchman with European mammals fleeing climate change to Siberia. Another accuses him of following in the footsteps of other Western men who have gone East to seek the pleasures of the flesh.
Perhaps the most interesting take I've seen is the one that sees Depardieu's act as a parable of globalization. After all, the actor's primary motive for breaking with his home country appears to have been his disgruntlement over the high tax rates on top earners floated by Socialist President François Hollande. So a New York Times op-ed writer has accordingly opted to draw a parallel between Depardieu's yearning for a lower bracket (Putin's Russia has a flat tax of 13 percent) and the multinationals prowling the world's markets for bargain-basement operating costs.
In this reading, Depardieu is just another soulless corporate migrant, unconstrained by outmoded national loyalties, purchasing his nationality purely according to ruthless capitalist calculations. Citizenship is above all a business decision. This is certainly true for many other high-income people, of course -- those tennis players and Formula 1 stars who plant themselves in Monaco. But there is nothing new about this. It's a practice that dates back at least to Britain's famous tax exiles in the 1970s (Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones among them) -- or even to Noel Coward two decades before that.
In Depardieu's case, though, there is just one problem: Why, precisely, Russia? It actually isn't such an attractive corporate domicile. You won't find many multinational companies relocating their headquarters to Moscow. And the Russians who've earned their money there don't seem terribly eager to keep it at home. Capital flight last year amounted to a whopping $56.7 billion -- which suggests a problematic investment climate at best. (That figure was actually down significantly from 2011.) What do those Russians know that Depardieu doesn't?