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Amidst wealth tax controversy, France’s richest man to take Belgian citizenship

LVMH chief executive Bernard Arnault

GONZALO FUENTES/Reuters

His business empire makes some of the most iconic products in France, so when the country's richest man announced he would take Belgian citizenship it was bound to ruffle feathers. But when set against the backdrop of a controversial new wealth tax, criticism of Bernard Arnault quickly turned toxic.

Mr. Arnault, who controls the couture house Dior and LVMH, a conglomerate of high-end brands, is estimated by Forbes to be worth $41-billion (U.S.). He insists that he is not leaving for tax reasons – and will continue to pay French taxes – but that hasn't appeased his critics.

In a jarring front page Monday, the daily newspaper Libération said "Get lost, rich bastard." It was a play on a comment by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who said "get lost, poor bastard" at someone who refused to shake his hand.

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In a video statement, the newspaper's deputy director of editorial justified the cover by noting that Mr. Arnault is not merely wealthy, he is politically active. And Sylvain Bourmeau suggested that it was Mr. Arnault who was guilty of insulting behaviour.

Following his spring election victory over Mr. Sarkozy, left-leaning Francois Hollande proposed an extra tax on the wealthiest citizens. The 75 per cent rate would kick in at the million-Euro threshold. There are hints, though, that the government is softening the plan and that the tax will apply only to income from work, not from investments or other sources.

There have been anecdotal reports since of wealthy French people enquiring about jobs and residences in London. On Monday, the property agent Savills told Reuters that prices for upmarket homes in Paris had slid, with the new tax cited as one factor.

Mr. Hollande outlined Sunday a deficit-busting plan that would involve raising 10 billion Euros from taxpayers, with the wealthiest bearing the heaviest load, another 10 billion through higher business taxes and a further 10 billion through government spending cuts.

The French president also took the time to appeal to Mr. Arnault's patriotism during a fiscally difficult period for the nation. "He must weigh up what it means to seek another nationality because we are proud to be French," Mr. Hollande said.

The issue is particularly fraught because Mr. Arnault's connection to companies that make so many products vital to the cultural identity of the nation.

Dior is credited with helping Paris regain its role as fashion centre after the war and remains a top couture house. The iconic items produced by LVMH include Louis Vuitton's famed bags, Dom Pérignon champagne and Hennessy cognac. And for more pedestrian tastes, Mr. Arnault's interests also include the historic Paris department stores Le Bon Marché, which was fictionalized by Émile Zola in Au Bonheur des Dames, and La Samaritaine.

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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