Opinion

John Lloyd

France’s taxing expatriates

John Lloyd
Dec 26, 2012 18:32 UTC

Gerard Depardieu, 64 years old before the year’s end, is an actor of great range and talent. He could play the naïve, finally broken farmer in Jean de Florette; the heroic, swashbuckling, great-nosed Cyrano de Bergerac; the slobbish but romantic Georges in Green Card…and so on, and on, through scores of films and TV series, made at a rate of nearly five a year for over forty years. He acquired a fortune, restaurants, vineyards and many awards, capped by the Legion d’Honneur.

Earlier this month, he became an expatriate to escape French taxes. He returned his passport to the government, and moved from Paris to the village of Nechin in Belgium, just over the French border, where he joined a community of the French rich. They live there to enjoy the low taxes on stock and capital gains – low compared to those in France, where the Socialist government has imposed a marginal tax rate of 75 percent on incomes over 1 million euros ($1.2m).

He leaves in bitterness, with the curses of his government ringing in his ears. Jean-Marc Ayrault, the Prime Minister, said he was “shirking his patriotic duties.” He said that the rich were leaving “because they want to get even richer… we cannot fight poverty if those with the most – sometimes with a lot – do not show solidarity and a bit of generosity.”

For his part, Depardieu claimed he had paid 145 million euros ($190 million) in taxes in his career. “I am leaving,” he wrote in the Journal du Dimanche, “because you (the government) believe success, creation, talent, anything different must be sanctioned.”

In the markets and global financial institutions there’s a story building that France is a failure, and maybe even the next sick man of Europe. Louis Gallois, a prominent business figure, produced – on President Francois Hollande’s invitation – a report in October on how to buck up France’s economy, calling for a “competitiveness shock” that would include relaxing rigid labor laws and cutting taxes. These run counter to much in the Hollande program – he’s raised taxes, threatened to nationalize an Indian-owned steel plant that is closing and insisted that a 35-hour week, introduced by a previous Socialist government and much reduced by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, will stay. In an interview, Gallois said that “there is not actually a consensus in France that companies must be competitive to create value” – a serious charge. The president welcomed the report, moved to implement some of it, then seemed to retreat.

In Russia, unheeded cries of corruption

John Lloyd
Dec 18, 2012 17:34 UTC

In Moscow last week at a conference for young Russian journalists, I met a man named Edward Mochalov, who differed from most of the participants in having spent much of his working life as a farmer. He retains the ruddy countenance and the strong, chapped hands of the outdoor worker in a hard climate ‑ in his case, the Chuvash Republic, some 400 miles east of Moscow.

Mochalov’s story is that when thieves stole some of his cattle and pigs, he protested to the authorities, only to find himself in jail for eight months for wrongful accusation. Maddened by what he considered the result of corruption behind the scenes, he protested all the way up to President Vladimir Putin, going so far as to appear in Moscow’s Red Square with a placard telling his story, though to no avail. As he pursued justice, his farm went untended.

And so he turned to journalism. “I had no choice. The whole administration was corrupt, nothing to be done but fight them with words,” he told me. Four years ago he founded a newspaper he called, boldly and baldly, Vzyatka (translation: The Bribe). It comes out most months, and it’s replete with investigations and denunciations of corruption in his locality. He prints some 20,000 copies and gives them away. Demand, he says, hugely outpaces supply.

Silvio Berlusconi rises from the dead (again)

John Lloyd
Dec 11, 2012 16:43 UTC

It’s not over till Silvio stops singing. The onetime cruise ship crooner has called his party – the People of Freedom – to order. Most have obeyed his command to withdraw support for the technocratic government now running Italy, including those who until recently said it was a good thing old man Berlusconi was out of the running.

The pesky thing is, Berlusconi is right about some things. His party is right when it says “the situation is worse than a year ago.” Berlusconi will be right, as well, if he judges that the parties of the left – presently the likely winners in a future election – don’t rouse much enthusiasm in the electorate. And he may – just may – be right that his money, his media and the old Berlusconi magic might tip the scales toward him.

But is he right enough to win back power? It will depend on whether his fellow citizens’ disappointment at the results, so far, of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s austerity program is greater than their memory of how ineffectual and scandal-ridden Berlusconi was by the end of his rule. This week, Monti announced he is resigning once next year’s budget is approved.

Mark Thompson’s wise words

John Lloyd
Dec 4, 2012 18:28 UTC

Last month, Mark Thompson, the new chief executive of the New York Times Co. and former director-general of the BBC, gave a short series of lectures in Oxford. In between jobs, he warned that words were losing their democratic heft. The lectures were little noticed because they largely did not touch on the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, which had just been revealed. Thompson denied all knowledge of the scandal, so no articles ‑ as far as I have seen ‑ were written.

Yet Thompson’s remarks are crucial to our understanding of modern politics everywhere, and the journalism that reports on it. They were wholly concerned with the use of language, the bedrock of all media. They expressed a deep worry ‑ at times, a real pessimism ‑ about the health of the democratic debate because of the abuse of words.

Part of Thompson’s theme was that much of the news put out by the media is, to many who watch or listen or read, unintelligible ‑ “might as well be in Sanskrit.” That is especially the case of news that attempts to describe what is happening in the economy, a subject  replete with acronyms, concepts and mysterious institutions.

A church divided against itself cannot stand

John Lloyd
Nov 27, 2012 17:46 UTC

The Church of England voted not to ordain female bishops last week, a move widely seen as defying the modern world. Much justification was given for this view.

Both the retiring and the incoming archbishops of Canterbury deplored the vote. The former, the scholarly (and “greatly saddened”) Rowan Williams, said, “It seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of … wider society.” The incoming Justin Welby took a more upbeat view, one appropriate for a former senior oil executive. “There is a lot to be done,” he said, “but I am absolutely confident that at some point I will consecrate a woman bishop.” Still, Welby conceded that the vote was “a pretty grim day for the whole church.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron, pausing in the midst of his battle to reduce European Union spending, snapped that the church needed to “get with the program” and that his task was, while respecting its autonomy, to give it a “sharp prod.” A succession of clergy, men and women, lamented the decision, some crying demonstratively on the street outside the hall where the synod – the church’s parliament – met.

Getting away from the ‘Arab Street’

John Lloyd
Nov 19, 2012 22:14 UTC

The Tunisian Foreign Minister, Rafik Abdesslem, visited Gaza last week to give a speech. Abdesslem, who spent many years in exile studying international relations at the University of Westminster in London, is an intellectual with little adult experience of the rougher side of the Middle East.

His speech condemned Israel, of course, while not mentioning that the Gazans had launched many rockets over the past few days – a few of them, for the first time, hitting the major centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As foreign policy intellectuals do, he sought to put events into a geopolitical framework. He pointed to what he believes is the underlying truth of the time: “Israel should understand,” he said, “that many things have changed and that lots of water has run in the Arab river.”

In the two pioneer countries of the Arab Spring, Islamists have been elected as the major political force, and provide the government. As Rami G. Khouri pointed out in his column in Lebanon’s Daily Star, these new governments “more accurately reflect the sentiments of their citizens vis-à-vis the Palestine issue… which will increase the political pressure on Israel.” Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi and Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki are Islamists, with (especially in the first case) a well-documented detestation of the Jewish state. They are constrained to be cautious, but their decision to send high-level emissaries to Gaza – more are scheduled to go – gives the Hamas government there both a shield and an encouragement. Were an Egyptian killed in a bombing raid, the resulting outrage could mean, writes Eric Trager in The Atlantic, a breaking of Egyptian diplomatic relations with Israel, even a renunciation of the peace treaty. The “Arab Street” would be roused.

A formal scandal for the BBC

John Lloyd
Nov 12, 2012 21:40 UTC

The British love form. Not for nothing the phrases “good form” andbad form” were, until recently, compliments, or severe criticism, of behavior. Four and a half centuries of internal peace in England have allowed the country’s traditional roles and offices to remain intact for outward show, their “forms” undisturbed. The monarch, the Lords and Ladies of the upper chamber of Parliament, the Church of England, the hundreds of orders given for public service each year ‑ all are more or less devoid of substance, there for the gorgeousness of their mere existence. All these forms — and yet more that will go unmentioned ‑ still attract formal obeisance, remain envied and, where possible, are sought after.

This past weekend another piece of British form encountered a media storm, and may not recover its original … form. The director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, George Entwistle, in the post for less than two months, resigned late on Saturday night. In his short stint in office two separate scandals emerged with, at their roots, allegations of pedophilia. Those scandals transfixed the Corporation and destroyed Entwistle’s career.

In the first case, a Newsnight investigation into the pedophilia of a BBC star presenter for decades, the late Sir(!) Jimmy Savile ‑ he was a member of the Order of the British Empire as well as a knight of the realm ‑ was halted at the last minute. There are now two inquiries into whether top executives interfered to prevent the airing of the BBC’s dirty laundry. Last week a new scandal emerged with a terrible symmetry: Newsnight did another investigation into separate allegations of pedophilia at a Welsh children’s home. It said the pedophile was a “very senior Conservative politician of the Thatcher era” and more or less pointed the way to the Web, where the said politician was identified as Sir George McAlpine, the party treasurer for much of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as leader of the Conservative Party.

Next president will face a darker world

John Lloyd
Nov 6, 2012 16:54 UTC

Radicals of left and right like to say that the American election is an affair of sound and fury, signifying nothing. One guy in a suit replaces another guy in a suit, the two mostly agree on the basics: the economy, capitalist; foreign policy, hegemonic.

To be sure, American elections remain battlegrounds: a resurgent right has, in the past two decades, drawn sharper lines on a culture war that puts sexuality and its effects at the center of a national debate. Homosexuality, abortion and reproductive rights are divisive issues. But radicals believe that overall, little changes: An elite governs, and largely governs the same way regardless of party.

Yet both capitalism and hegemony have served the U.S., and much of the world, better than any other obviously available option. In the last few years, democratic practice has certainly seen a number of setbacks: The victory of the conservative group Citizens United in having the Supreme Court overturn the provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 – which had prohibited corporations and unions paying for political propaganda independently of the candidates’ campaigns – is only the latest obvious example. But U.S. civil society remains among the liveliest, most rambunctious and exemplary in the world, a large part of the reason why the U.S. is still the destination of choice of those yearning to breathe a little freer (and earn at least a little more).

The once and future Silvio

John Lloyd
Oct 30, 2012 21:39 UTC

A stake through the heart might keep Silvio Berlusconi out of Italian politics, but it better be hammered in hard. Last week he renounced all intention of running again for the premiership of Italy, then received a four-year prison sentence (later reduced to a year) for tax evasion.

Facing that, another man might have sought privacy, but the former prime minister shows – and licks – his wounds in public. He called a press conference and threatened to withdraw his party’s support of the government of technocrats led by Mario Monti. Without that, it would fall. Italy, its economy still fragile, would be plunged into a deep crisis. Berlusconi, who advertised his decision to renounce office as having been dictated by his “love of Italy,” now seems, in his rage over the sentence, to be imitating Samson, pulling down the pillars of the temple as he leaves it.

On the day Berlusconi was sentenced, Elsa Fornero, the cabinet minister responsible for work, pensions and equal opportunities, came to Oxford to speak to a largely Italian audience, a meeting I chaired. She – like Monti, an economics professor – is the kind of politician you find in a TV series like The West Wing. She speaks as one intelligent adult to others, patient in explaining complex legislation. She’s at the heart of the storm that the Monti government’s cuts have stirred in the still powerful trade unions.

Wanted: Equitable capitalism, profitable socialism

John Lloyd
Oct 23, 2012 16:26 UTC

Socialism – real, no-private-ownership, state-controlled, egalitarian socialism – has been off the political agenda in most states, including Communist China, for decades. The mixture of gross inefficiency and varying degrees of repressive savagery that most such systems showed seems to have inoculated the world against socialism and confined support for it to the arts and sociology faculties of Western universities. But what was booted triumphantly out the front door of history may be knocking quietly on the back door of the present. The reason is inequality.

Pointing out inequality is a political attraction these days, and as good a dramatization of that as any is in the comparison between what Tony Blair, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, said about it in 2001, on the eve of his second election, and what Conservative leader David Cameron said about it in a speech in 2009, soon before the 2010 election that made him Prime Minister. Blair, questioned about rising inequality, responded that while he was concerned with poverty and its alleviation, he didn’t lose sleep about the rich being rich. “It’s not”, he said, invoking Britain’s most popular sports figure, “a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.”

Cameron, referring to the recently published The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – a detailed argument that inequality is bad for everyone, even the rich – said the book showed that “among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality-of-life indicator.” That left and right should so switch places marks the shift that has taken place in the past decade, from living in societies where the tide of growth lifted all boats to one where most fear they’ll soon be sinking (assuming they already aren’t).

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