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France: French rich hold €17bn in low-tax Belgium

16 September 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Author: Kim Willsher
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Author: Kim Willsher (theguardian.com)

France's wealthiest entrepreneurs hold around €17bn in neighbouring Belgium where taxes are lower, according to a French newspaper report.

While some have had Belgian bases for many years, a wave of fiscal exiles have gone north since François Hollande became president in 2012, the financial paper L'Echo claimed.

Its lists of exiles includes Bernard Arnault, head of the luxury goods group LVMH and France's richest man; media mogul Stéphane Courbit; businessman and former government minister Bernard Tapie; and the Mulliez family, which controls the supermarket chain Auchan.

L'Echo also listed the Bongrain family, head of France's second biggest cheese company, which set up a holding company in Brussels in 1988; the Besnier family, founders of the milk product company Lactalis, based at Ixelles; and the Savare family, whose Oberthur Technologies group is a world leader in secure printing.

The youngest son of the Decaux publicity family also has a holding company in Belgium, according to the paper, as does the Hériard-Dubreuil family, which made its fortune in spirits.

L'Echo claimed that almost 20 of France's richest 100 people had invested part of their wealth in Belgium. When it extended its research to the top 500, it discovered that many more were either living in or setting up holding companies in Belgium, involving assets and investments worth €17bn.

"Of course, nobody every talks about tax evasion or even exile. No, in the discretion of the chambers of the biggest tax lawyers, they talk more of optimisation. And they are not wrong," L'Echo said.

It said those concerned were "not shouting it from the rooftops" but "sheltering their holdings behind increasingly improbably names".

As an example, it said the French licensee of the Weight Watchers franchise held more than €114m in a Belgian company called Senoble International.

Joan Condijts, editor in chief of L'Echo, said the investment climate and employment opportunities in Belgium were attracting wealthy French. "We have not really looked at the real number of French or their assets, so what we found was a surprise," he said.

France has a "solidarity tax" on the wealthy, known as the ISF, which is levied on assets above €1.31m including primary residences. Belgian has no such tax and lower levies on income and capital.

L'Echo said that as well as the big-name entrepreneurs, many lesser-known rich French had set up in chic areas of Brussels, in Uccle or Ixelles, or invested in homes at Estaimpuis, near Belgium's border with France.

There are believed to be around 250,000 French, including 13,300 entrepreneurs, living in Belgium. The number is said the have increased by 39% since 2007.

The French actor Gérard Depardieu hit the headlines in December 2012 when he announced he was moving to Belgium in order to escape French taxes. Depardieu later declared he was settling in Moscow, where he was awarded Russian nationality.

L'Echo also listed Pierre and Chantal Mestre, founders of the Orchestra range of children's clothes, who moved to Tervuren, popular with expatriates working for the European Union, Nato and multinationals and home to the British School of Brussels; Paul Despature, 40th richest person in France and heir to the Damart company; and Gilles Martin, head of Eurofins Scientific.

Grégory Marciano and Hervé Louis, two of the three founders of the food chain Sushi Shop, are both now living in Brussels, according to L'Echo, as does Olivier Halley, one of the Carrefour heirs and head of the DPAM clothes label as well as two vineyards.

This article first appeared on theguardian.com.


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