|"Who art the shabbiest Sire, ye or I?"|
Enter the Hollande administration with its promises to tax the rich at 75%, introduce stiff new taxes for businesses and adopt a populist anti-rich stance, all of which were designed to extend Hollande's 'honeymoon period' after being elected. This policy has resulted in an exodus of wealthy French businessmen and others, who have left for kinder economic climes, taking their money with them and thus rendering the whole exercise relatively self-defeating. But no matter, the hunt for the rich is on and the government hopes that the public will notice and approve of its actions.
Depardieu joined the long queue to leave and eventually bought a house in a small town in Belgium just next to the French border. His decision resulted in a barrage of criticism from the government which reached boiling point last week when PM Jean-Marc Ayrault called his actions 'rather shabby', and incensed Socialists are now calling for people like Depardieu who leave the country for tax reasons to be stripped of their French nationality and made to pay a hefty 'exit tax.' Hollande has even gone so far as to bully his smaller Belgian neighbour and ask it to start taxing its rich residents more heavily.
Depardieu finally responded to the heavy flak today in an irony-laden open letter in the French press in which he denounces Ayrault's remarks, says that the government's anti-rich policies are punishing "success, creation and talent" in France and angrily declares that he's sending his French passport back to the government in protest, giving up his French nationality, and forfeiting his rights to Social Security aid.
Now I am no fan of Depardieu believe you me, be it his acting or his personality, and his actions do indeed remind one of 'rats leaving the sinking ship' but this affair does at least have the merit of cristallising the ugly undercurrent of venimous class sentiment which has begun to permeate French society over the last year or so.
Things were bad enough under Sarkozy, when the country almost had a nervous breakdown so obssessed were the French about the polarising effect he was believed to be having on the country. This is why the French didn't so much elect Hollande as evict Sarkozy. They would have voted for your alcoholic neighbour as long as he or she was anti-Sarkozy.
But the atmosphere has become even worse since, and the current administration seems to be intent on using the rich as their whipping boy, their scapegoat for all that is wrong with the country. Of course the rich deserve some stiff scriticism as well as more taxes and stricter laws on finance - after all, we're all paying more so why not them? - but the current and heavy-handed clumsy witch-hunt approach is not working, the public knows it, and it won't extend Hollande's honeymoon for long.
Take the vindictive words of the government's class-warfare militant and Minister for Industrial Renewal Arnaud Montebourg who, during the recent negotiations over the future of the Florange Steelworks and its jobs, acrimoniously declared that the company who owns them, Mittal, "was not welcome in France", that it "lied" habitually, that it owed "astronomical' sums of money to the taxman (without offering any evidence for either) and that "we don't want Mittal in France any more." He went on to unilaterally announce that the government would renationalise the site.
Montebourg and other ministers have shown a similar disdain for other large companies and rich individuals recently, but Montebourg's latest cack-handed outburst proved to be too much even for this government and president, who disowned his words for fear of a negative backlash from foreign investors, both current and potential.
The last thing France needs right now is to scare off investors by declaring full-scale war on them and the rich in general. This shabby rabble-rousing tactic is already blowing up in their faces and the government will regret it before next summer.
So where's the opposition, whose job it is to act as a democratic counterbalance to government? They are nowhere to be seen of course because their actions are just as shabby as those of their opponents.
The UMP has been hijacked by Jean-François Copé, its self-proclaimed leader who only sits in the party president's chair because of a blatant fraud perpetrated by his henchmen during the recent internal party presidential election. This man is arrogantly defying the wishes of the 80% of his party members and about the same percentage of the public who are demanding a rerun of the election. He is a political bandit whose banana-republic mentality is a disgrace not only to his party but to French politics as a whole.
Not that the Socialists can criticise them too loudly of course (and they have been wise enough not to moreover), because their own party leader was not even 'elected.' He was quite simply parachuted in as the head of the party by a troika of top Socialists who designated him during an hour-long secret meeting in some office or another in the parliament building. No internal election, no opportunity for rank-and-file members to express their preferences. If that's not shabby behaviour I don't know what is.
But perhaps the most illustrative example of boorish behaviour in French politics during this government's tenure came on the very first day of the new parliament, a day upon which all elected parliamentarians are held to respect the parliamentary tradition which demands that they all shake the hand of all first-time députés during a special welcoming ceremony. But they shamefully refused to follow this tradition of common courtesy and refused to shake the hands of the only two Front National députés in parliament, both of whom had been elected for the first time.
That was a disgrace. Make no mistake, I have no truck for the hateful policies of this, an extreme-right wing party, but whether we like it or not these two French citizens were given their parliamentary mandates by other French citizens in a free and open election, and all politicians in any civilised parliament owe it to those who voted for them them to respect the democratically-expressed decision of the people and refrain from ostracising legally-elected political opponents in such an insulting manner.
Yes, Depardieu's behaviour is reprehensible in some respects, and yes, tighter fiscal laws and control for the rich and big business must be introduced, and quickly, but when one looks at who is giving them lessons on civilised and respectful behaviour the only word which comes to mind is 'hypocrisy.'
The French word for 'shabby', or 'pathetic' is 'minable', and I can't begin to count the number of times I have discussed French politics, multinational business practice and tax-exiling rich elites with friends and others only to hear 'minable' used to describe them.
No wonder then that just under 80% of French citizens declare in polls that they are sick to death of the behaviour of their political and other elites, and no wonder either that the Hollande-Ayrault tandem has reached the lowest level of popularity of any administration since the beginning of the 5th Republic.
'Minable'? They all are, the whole lot of 'em, and I wouldn't trust any of 'em as far as I could chuck 'em.....