Departures: Brussels, Belgium

In Reports

Controversy—cultural, political or historical—has never much managed to ruffle Belgium. Flat (for the most part) as a pancake, it was long a favorite staging ground for set-piece battles between Europe’s warring giants: France, Germany, Britain. A more recent triumph of resilience involved surviving 541 days without a government, the longest modern-day stretch of any country on record. “We were better off without it,” kvetched an elderly taxi driver, when asked recently about the resumption last December of politics as usual.

Enter from stage South-West (with panache) Gérard Depardieu: movie star, megalith, living incarnation of a pantheon of French fictional greats.

“I give you back my passport and my Social Security, which I never used. We no longer have the same country. I’m a real European, a citizen of the world, as my father inculcated in me.” So wrote Depardieu in an open letter on December 16 to the French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. (My translation; original here.)

Paris, shaken into controversy by an old ghost called audacity, took fire. In the final weeks of 2012, luminaries and lesser celebrities lit up the pages of French media outlets Le Parisien, Le Point, Libération, Le Journal du Dimanche, defending or attacking Depardieu, a national icon whose decision to leave France and head to Belgium was widely interpreted as an attempt to flee a 75% tax that the Socialist government, sworn in last May, has attempted to impose on the country’s wealthiest. The tax is the most palpably punitive among a raft of measures that have threatened to curb business initiatives and accelerated, at least according to anecdotal Belgian reports, a years-long exodus of French magnates and entrepreneurs to less financially harsh climes.

A philosopher in the highbrow Parisian weekly Le Point compared the government’s assault on France’s wealthy to the Terror, the brief, bloody phase of the French Revolution lorded over by guillotine-happy ideologues. The publisher of Le Figaro, a center-right newspaper, recalled an earlier calamity: Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, an incident that prompted a mass departure of French Protestants whom the edict had protected for nearly a century from unhinged mob violence and sporadic massacres.

America had its Jane Fonda moment in 1968. But beyond a regular effort by Republicans and Democrats to wheel out a celebrity at their respective national conventions (Clint Eastwood most recently), it’s hard to imagine comparable political shockwaves in the US. If an American movie star or nationally respected celebrity were to throw out his citizenship and up sticks to Canada, he’d likely merit brief partisan bashing on the morning shows and end by late night as a comedian’s punch line.

But in France, the readiness of a cultural icon—be he poet, playwright, or cartoon character—to thumb his nose at powers-that-be is about as nationally significant as artfully fermented cheese.

Figaro, Beaumarchais’ titular Barber of Seville, awoke a pre-Revolutionary Parisian audience to the idea that an aristocrat earned his privileges only “for suffering the hassle of being born, and nothing more.” (“Vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de plus.”) Before Figaro came Scapin, Molière’s wily servant who made a sport of outwitting his masters. And before Scapin came Astérix, chronologically at least: a pint-sized warrior who regularly kicked the Roman invaders of Gaul into the Stone Age. Depardieu, in the movie version, played Obélix, Astérix’s giant sidekick and one more among at least a half-dozen iconic, cinematic embodiments of French insolence.

When word of Depardieu’s impending getaway leaked, the prime minister called him unpatriotic and “minable.” The insult translates as somewhere between pathetic, small-minded, and shabby. Thus did Depardieu answer with a scathing open letter, which broadened the debate beyond the merely pecuniary. “I’m leaving,” he wrote, “because you consider that success, creation, talent, difference, in fact, must be punished.”

On January 2, a French constitutional court partly rejected the controversial high income tax. Depardieu told reporters that he would stand by his decision.

He wasn’t planning to travel very far: a tractor trail, by some measure, across a Texan ranch. He had reportedly bought a home in the dinky Belgian frontier town of Néchin, less than a mile from a hauntingly unattended border post that stands as testament to a bygone era of unrelenting war. Barely a sneeze beyond, under the same stretch of leaden sky, sprawls France’s northern industrial city of Lille.

Europe, as an idea, presents its citizens with a paradox: border posts have been abandoned and a thousand years of war have been relegated to collective memory. Decisions in Brussels, at EU headquarters, impinge on lives across the continent. But even if domestic and foreign policy remain the preserve of individual nation states and few would disavow their primary sense of loyalty to their country of origin, just as few could any longer deny the transcendent validity of European identity. Depardieu’s appeal to his sense of being European, coming out of a passionate and growing gulf between competing visions of France, wasn’t just a fist in the face of old-world patriotism: it scratched a continent-wide itch.

Until it didn’t. Instead—almost as if to underscore the palpable ambiguity of Europe’s shifting appeal or perhaps merely to evade the unrelentingly leaden skies of Belgium—Depardieu decided at the eleventh hour to defect to Russia. An offer of citizenship came direct from President Vladimir Putin, who milked the moment as a diplomatic stick in the eye to Paris that both trumpeted Russia’s 13% income tax and its abiding and deep respect for artists. Putin conveniently omitted to mention a few lapses in creative freedom across much of the twentieth century that mostly saw creative types defecting in the other direction. To Paris, as disenchanted as any Western government with Putin’s latter day authoritarianism, Depardieu’s next move came with no small irony: the actor apparently was quick to exchange his old French politcal irreverence for a full-fledged endorsement of his new president. Within days, in a taped interview, Depardieu attacked the embattled Russian opposition as lacking coherence, and downplayed the punishment of artistic counterparts such as Pussy Riot, a music group whose members are currently serving two-year prison sentences in Russian labor camps for playing an anti-Putin song in a cathedral last year.

Meanwhile, many of France’s escape artists appear to prefer the confines of Europe. Easier there to pretend you’re still home. In Brussels, capital of Europe a mere hour and ten minutes by train from Paris and 40 minutes from Lille, dozens of exiled French magnates have set down roots in stately mansions around the aptly named Avenue Molière.

Plus ca change …

First published in VQR.

Photo by Flikkersteph

Comments

Delphine Schrank
Delphine Schrank is a contributing editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review and the author of The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance in Burma, a 2015 book based on four years of undercover reporting. She was a staff writer and editor for five years at The Washington Post, and her writing has also appeared in Mother Jones, The Atlantic, Time, and Foreign Policy. A Franco-American based in Washington, D.C., Delphine has previously lived and worked in England, France, Belgium, Germany, Burma, Thailand, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.