French newspaper handbags Vuitton billionaire

Tue, Sep 11, 2012, 01:00

THE POLITICAL storm over a decision by France’s richest man, luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault, to seek Belgian citizenship intensified yesterday as politicians lined up to lambaste the billionaire.

Mr Arnault, chief executive of LVMH, the group behind brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dior and Dom Pérignon, insisted he was not planning to become a tax exile and said the application should not be seen as a political gesture.

Nevertheless, the timing of the revelation, just days after Mr Arnault discussed the government’s planned 75 per cent wealth tax with prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, has fuelled speculation about his motives.

“He should have considered what it means to apply for citizenship of another country,” president François Hollande said. “In this period, we need to appeal to patriotism.”

Mr Arnault, a friend of Mr Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, is ranked as the world’s fourth-richest man, with a total wealth of $41 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He emigrated to the United States for three years when the socialist François Mitterrand came to power in 1981 and has been critical of the current government’s tax initiative.

“Get lost, rich twat,” said the front page of the left-wing Libération newspaper, next to a picture of a smiling Arnault carrying a suitcase. Mr Arnault’s lawyer issued a statement saying he was suing Libération over the headline, calling it vulgar and violent.

The headline was a play on Mr Sarkozy’s famous 2008 comment to a man who refused to shake his hand: “Casse-toi, pauv’ con” (Get lost, you poor twat).

Bruno Le Roux, a socialist member of the lower house, said Mr Arnault was “betraying France’s recovery”. François Chérèque, head of the CFDT trade union, said the decision was “immoral”.

Mr Arnault has a home in Brussels and would not need Belgian citizenship to declare himself resident there for tax purposes. He said he was seeking dual citizenship for business reasons but critics said he could work in Belgium as a Frenchman and already had holding companies there.

Leaving for Belgium could be a first step towards acquiring citizenship in Monaco, Libération speculated. As a Frenchman in Monaco, Mr Arnault would have to pay income tax but could avoid that if he dropped his French nationality.