UCCLE, Belgium — The 8,500 French residents of this affluent Brussels suburb count the Taittingers, of champagne fame, among their well-heeled neighbors. France’s richest man, luxury-goods mogul Bernard Arnault, is shopping for some high-end real estate here too.
Sure, the patisseries, trendy boutiques and assurance that Paris lies a short train ride away make the emigres feel right at home. But for the mega-rich among their number, there’s another draw: More of their vast fortunes stays in their pockets and out of the taxman’s.
Last month, the Socialist government of French President Francois Hollande decided to increase its take on earnings above $1.3 million to an eye-popping 75 percent, a “supertax” that has dismayed those who must pay it and delighted those who don’t. Belgium’s top income tax rate is 50 percent.
When Arnault revealed his intention to apply for Belgian citizenship and live at least part time in Uccle, this quiet town shot into the spotlight as an unlikely tax refuge. Its genial mayor, Armand De Decker, doesn’t mind.
“It’s always a good thing to have rich people coming to your territory,” De Decker says. “Mr. Hollande is provoking big reaction because his idea of 75 percent is crazy. … The French economy will go down through his attitude and decisions.”
France’s government, however, is hardly alone in its desire to extract more from its richest citizens. Higher taxes may be political poison in the U.S. right now, but on this side of the Atlantic, where once-booming countries have tumbled back into recession and are desperately trying to ease their debts, the idea of getting the rich to contribute more to the public purse is increasingly part of the national debate.
France’s staggering top rate, which in practice affects only a few thousand people, is the most publicized example of a wealth tax in Europe. In other countries, proponents have urged higher levies on total assets or on property and other luxury items, such as yachts.
Critics say a tax designed to “soak the rich” is a surefire way to damp investment, stifle innovation and destroy jobs. Supporters call it basic fairness, arguing for greater responsibility from the highest earners at a time when inequality across Europe is becoming worse.
“Very few people are getting more money and very many people (are) getting less,” said Jutta Sundermann, a social activist in western Germany. “The money we want to take through these levies will not mean that any of the richest will become poor. They will still have more than most people.”
The country’s biggest opposition party, the Social Democrats, has written a wealth tax into its platform, a 1 percent levy on residents with assets of more than $2.6 million, which would generate $11.5 billion a year.
In Spain, the newly installed center-right government pledged to repeal the wealth tax that its Socialist predecessor instituted. But with debt levels rising, putting Madrid at the center of fresh fears over the euro crisis, the ruling party has had to abandon that vow.