Democracy Lab

What I Learned from Gerard Depardieu

The French actor's case is the exception that proves the rule: Citizenship still matters.

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.

And he's still keeping the story alive. This past weekend, Depardieu made headlines yet again by giving an interview in which he badmouthed Russia's political opposition.

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?

Well, probably they're aware that Russia remains a place where you can't trust the courts, where you can't count on the law to protect your assets, and where your physical and commercial security depends on your relationships to the people in power. Hmm, on second thought, maybe Depardieu does know this. If his harsh talk about Putin's critics is any indication, he's certainly working overtime to suck up to his friend the president.

Depardieu clearly enjoys that special treatment from Czar Vladimir, and, indeed, this is precisely what he's banking on. He doesn't care about tax law. It's precisely the absence of the rule of law that he likes. And if you're a marquee name who happens to be friends with the guy in charge, why wouldn't you? Most Russians don't have that luxury, of course. But that's their problem (as Depardieu would presumably say). To my ears, he actually sounds relatively sincere in his paeans to the system that Putin has built, talking enthusiastically about the "great democracy" that reigns in Russia.

In this, I suspect, Depardieu hearkens back to a long line of other Frenchmen who have trooped off to Russia in the past, seeking various versions of the despotic utopias they were trying to push at home. The lifelong Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre visited the Soviet Union in the early 1950s and couldn't see anything wrong. When the Marquis de Custine traveled to the Russia of Czar Nicholas I in the late 1830s, he was determined to hype the virtues of one-man rule. (To his credit, he ended up being thoroughly disillusioned by the reality he encountered.) And Joseph de Maistre gravitated to the unforgiving court of Catherine the Great, which he saw as the embodiment of everything admirable that had been destroyed by the hated French Revolution.

I doubt that Depardieu has the brain power of these illustrious forbears. But what's striking is that he decided to go that one step farther by actually becoming Russian. And it's this that has made his critics especially angry. How could he do such a thing?

Well, of course, he's free to choose any citizenship he wants -- just like the rest of us. But it's also worth pointing out that Depardieu's story is a radical outlier, anything but typical of current global migration flows. The overwhelming majority of the other people applying for Russian citizenship each year are either ethnic Russians who live in other republics of the former Soviet Union, or non-Russian citizens of those same countries who yearn to escape regimes that are even more repressive or economically underdeveloped. (That's right, Tajikistan, I'm talking about you.) The number of applicants from the countries of the developed world (by which I mean not only the "West" but also the equally prosperous democracies of the East) is miniscule.

The reason, presumably, is that most people in the world who chose to move to a new country don't make that decision based exclusively on tax rates. (Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, who decided to renounce his U.S. citizenship in 2011 in order to maximize his take from the initial public offering of the company he helped to create, is another exception that proves the rule.) Most migrants take a hard look at the relative freedom, security, and prosperity of the place they're planning to move to -- a set of criteria one might sum up in the phrase "the rule of law." (Actually, Saverin currently holds citizenship in his home country of Brazil, which is democratic and prosperous, so perhaps he fits this pattern too.)

By comparison, it's quite striking that so many wealthy Russians and Chinese are opting to bank money, buy houses, educate their children (and yes, obtain passports) in countries where they know they can still count on fair treatment before the law. Meanwhile, despite the surface prosperity of Beijing and Moscow, not too many wealthy Westerners seem to be picking up homes there.

I wonder if the dismal fates of businesspeople such as Bill Browder (who made hundreds of millions of dollars in Russia before running afoul of the corruption there) or Neil Heywood (apparently murdered by the wife of now-disgraced Chinese big shot Bo Xilai) have anything to do with it? Such stories suggest, indeed, that Depardieu might find himself rediscovering the virtues of an EU passport if his friendship with Putin happens to sour.

Citizenship, in other words, is still a pretty important issue -- despite all that well-meaning balderdash to the contrary about our "borderless" global civilization. Quite a few people, indeed, are still prepared to put their lives on the line to defend the highly abstract principle of sovereignty -- but only when it's a matter of the countries in which they are citizens. That's why we still get so emotional over seemingly marginal territorial disputes -- or the doings of big shots like Gérard Depardieu.

CAROLINE LARSON/AFP/Getty Images

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