Lauren Collins explores the psychology of France and money through the bizarre case of Gérard Depardieu, who left the patrie to become a citizen of Putin’s Russia for tax reasons. Excerpt:

[Depardieu’s] cri de coeur wasn’t really meant to be read; it was meant to be heard. It was an oration, appealing to ethos (“I was born in 1948, I began working at fourteen as a printer, a warehouse worker, and then as a dramatic artist”); logos (“I have paid a hundred and forty-five million euros in taxes over forty-five years”); and pathos (“No one who has left France has been injured as I have”). It was a eulogy for himself, a departed citizen. The Académie Française, keeper of the mother tongue, defines minable [a word Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault used to describe Depardieu the tax exile — RD]as connoting “an appearance that betrays poverty.” Ayrault had committed a one-word larceny: he had called a rich man poor.

The first anyone heard of the seventy-five-per-cent “supertax” was in February of last year, when Hollande, then the Socialist candidate for President, declared in a television interview that France’s cats were getting too fat. Hollande was in the midst of a tight race against the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, who, even by many of those who appreciated his pro-business policies, was seen as a vulgarian. Moreover, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the Left Front—a resurgent coalition of Communists, Trotskyists, Socialists, students, and environmentalists—was running high in the polls, siphoning off the hard-left vote with promises to ban profitable companies from firing workers and to seize incomes that exceeded three hundred thousand euros. A former teacher, who called himself “the sound and the fury,” Mélenchon presented a radical alternative to the Anglo-Saxon capitalism that, he argued, had crippled France’s economy and corroded its culture. “If Europe is a volcano, then France is the revolutionary crater!” he thundered at rallies. (One of them, held at the Bastille, drew a hundred thousand people.) His campaign posters read, “Make Banks Pay, Not the People,” rendering Hollande’s “Change Is Now” the model of ideological impotence.

“My enemy is the world of finance,” Hollande had proclaimed earlier in the campaign, but his mention of the supertax caught his advisers off guard. “You’re questioning me about a proposal I haven’t heard of,” Jérôme Cahuzac, who became Hollande’s Budget Minister, admitted to a reporter. If the tax, which represented a seventy-per-cent increase for France’s richest citizens, was surprising to Hollande’s advisers, it was tantalizing to the French public, sixty per cent of which approves of a supertax. Along with other changes to the tax code—higher levies on capital gains, higher rates for the upper middle class—the supertax drew on the republican ideal of taxation as an institution that would foster social cohesion. Americans insist that the poor do better; the French insist that the rich do worse.

What a great line: “Americans insist that the poor do better; the French insist that the rich do worse.” I’ve heard versions of that from young, entrepreneurial-minded French friends of mine who either have left, or want to leave. In one case I’m thinking of, my friend wasn’t a tax exile. He had nothing when he left France; what he wanted was the chance to make something — not only money, but to start his own company and test his own creativity. He moved to America and did just that. I remember well his telling me not long after he moved here that it wasn’t just the regulation he was escaping, but the mentality of his own people, who saw any attempt to do things better as an assault on the collective by someone who thought he was better than everybody else.

More from Collins’s article:

Lefebvre characterized the supertax as a “cynical” bit of demagoguery that would suck away the country’s dynamism. “The situation is very grave,” he said. “It’s not like 1981, when many French decided to go abroad after the election of Mitterrand. Now it’s not only the rich people who will go—it’s the people who want to be rich. François Hollande is drinking the blood of France.”

Melodramatically stated, but I hear the same things from creative, business-oriented Frenchmen I know. Read the Collins article for her conversation with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left Chavista loony who actually polled nearly 12 percent in last year’s presidential election.