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TAUBE: Obama should take a cue from Hollande’s failed supertax

Overtaxing ‘the rich’ a recipe for economic disaster

- - Tuesday, January 1, 2013

During the 2012 French presidential election, Francois Hollande, the socialist candidate, made the typical left-wing campaign-trail proposals about the size of government, private enterprise and social programs. He also made an outlandish campaign promise that raised a few eyebrows: a 75 percent income tax on French citizens earning more than 1 million euros annually.

Some voters didn't take Mr. Hollande's proposal seriously, chalking it up to political bluster and strategic voting patterns. What elected official in his right mind would implement a "millionaires' tax" and hope to have a political future?

As it turns out, Mr. Hollande is, if you'll pardon the expression, crazy like a fox. After he won the election against incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, he started the process of turning his 75 percent tax promise into law.

Something interesting happened in France, however. Some prominent Frenchmen -- including, one would suspect, some millionaires who foolishly had voted for Mr. Hollande -- didn't willingly toe the line. Actor Gerard Depardieu recently blasted the socialist president, bought a house in Belgium and offered to surrender his French passport. (Russian President Vladimir Putin rubbed some salt in French wounds by offering Mr. Depardieu a passport.) Bernard Arnault, a prominent businessman, applied for Belgian nationality -- although he claimed he would continue to pay French taxes. Alain Afflelou, owner of a French optical chain, announced he was moving to London to seek new business opportunities and "absolutely not for tax reasons."

Edouard Leclerc, founder of a large French supermarket chain, made an interesting comparison of Mr. Hollande's tax proposal to the French Revolution in The Guardian: "Whether you like Depardieu or not is not the point. It's this government's fiscal campaign against those who make money in this country. Maybe it's not 1789, but there will be plenty of rich leaving France. And there is a frightening populism on the rise."

How times have changed in France. In 2011, Le Nouvel Observateur ran an open letter called "Tax us!" in which 16 prominent and wealthy French citizens brazenly announced they were willing to pay more tax during the economic crisis. As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

Fortunately, the Constitutional Council of France threw a temporary wrench into Mr. Hollande's left-wing fantasy of soaking the rich. The country's highest constitutional authority, composed of nine judges and three former presidents, declared the 75 percent supertax to be unconstitutional. In their view, it "failed to recognize equality before public burdens," as it would have applied to individuals and not households. While it would be better if judiciary bodies did not meddle in the political affairs of any country, at least council members were wise enough to see how ridiculous this tax proposal was.

In spite of this setback, the socialists aren't giving up the fight. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the government would immediately redraft this proposal. Mr. Hollande, whose popularity has been tanking within his party as well as the country, remained defiant that the millionaires tax would be passed.

If they were both wise, they would drop this matter altogether.

Sure, Mr. Hollande's proposal would only impact the wallets of a few thousand French citizens, but that's not the point. It would have torn apart the domestic economy, caused many people at or near this proposed income threshold to give up their citizenship, encouraged tax cheating and likely have led to higher taxes for all other residents in due course. Just because the socialists were only targeting the wealthy now doesn't mean the middle class wouldn't be targeted later.

More important, the push for higher income taxes is always a bad political and economic strategy. Lower taxes stimulate a country's economic growth, increase business opportunities and jobs and encourage people to work harder for more take-home pay each year. When a government keeps taxes low and supports a competitive business environment and a free-market economy, people have real incentives to achieve great success -- and help make their country great, too.

That's why the United States was so successful for so many decades. It also is why President Obama's strategy of soaking the American rich -- by allowing the George W. Bush tax cuts to expire -- in the face of a "fiscal cliff" is such backward thinking.

While Mr. Obama isn't proposing anything close to Mr. Hollande's supertax, his particular proposal of penalizing the rich is remarkably similar. Let's hope it doesn't go any further than this and he learns a valuable lesson from France's potentially huge economic mistake.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.