KAI RYSSDAL: French voters are in the middle of a presidential campaign. Next weekend brings the first round of balloting. And polls say the front-runner is Nicolas Sarkozy. He's a tough law-and-order kind of guy. He's promising to cut taxes, too. A platform you might think would be a winner in one of the most highly-taxed countries in the world. Au contraire, as John Laurenson reports now from Paris.
[SOUND: Music by Johnny Hallyday played at a rally.]
JOHN LAURENSON: Nicolas Sarkozy makes his entrance at a rally in Marseilles to a song by Johnny Hallyday. The French, rather endearingly, still love the 63-year-old singer they've never stopped calling "L'Idol des Jeunes," The Teen Idol.
And when the presidential frontrunner — after kissing the cheeks of what feels like the entire population of Marseilles — finally gets to Johnny, the old "rockeur"— splendid in an ice-cream-white jacket — takes off his shades and the two men embrace to an enormous cheer.
[SOUND: Crowd cheering]
They've been friends since Sarkozy, as mayor of the rich Parisian suburb of Neuilly, married Hallyday to his latest wife. The French Elvis even joined Sarkozy's political party.
Now, though, in order to stop paying 4 of his estimated $6 million annual income to the French taxman, Hallyday's fled to Switzerland.
PHILIPPE MARINI: Johnny Hallyday is not only a sex symbol, he's a social symbol.
Philippe Marini, deputy head of the Senate Budget Committee, says two rich people a day are now "doing a Johnny" and escaping a wealth tax that has become an anachronism.
MARINI: Germany, more than 10 years ago, cancelled wealth tax. Last year, Finland cancelled its own wealth tax. And now, the Swedish government has decided to divide the rate by a factor of two. So France remains something like an exception.
High-earners in France can pay as much as 60 percent of their income in taxes — almost twice as much as in America.
And Marini says the wealth tax, which raises $5 billion a year, is counter-productive. He says it encourages people to move to lower-tax countries like Switzerland, Belgium and especially the U.K.
As a result of this exodus, France has lost some $30 billion of tax revenues this past decade.
[SOUND: Crowd clapping and chanting "Sarko, Sarko"]
Some of the 300,000 French people who now live in London, greeting the presidential hopeful in the British capital.
[SOUND: Sarkozy giving a speech.]
"Come Home!" appeals Sarkozy. He's trying to tempt them back with a promise of tax cuts across the board — with a 50 percent tax cap.
This plays well to young ex-pats in London. But many French people are outraged by the modest tax cuts that the current Chirac government has already implemented.
Liberation newspaper is even asking its readers to sign a Save Our Taxes petition. The front page headline? "Vive l'Impot!"— Long Live Taxes.
Jean-Michel Thenard is an editorialist at the paper.
[SOUND: Jean-Michel Thenard reading editorial]
He says taxes are about living together. They link the rich and the poor. They pay for public provision of education, transport, security and defense — all of which, he believes, are necessary for a civilized society.
For Jean-Michel Thenard, Johnny Hallyday doesn't belong in the civilized society of France. Neither, apparently, do the tennis star Amelie Mauresmo, the singer Charles Aznavour or the actor Alain Delon, all of whom have moved to Switzerland.
Luckily, a few stars remain. Like who? Monsieur Thenard thinks for a moment. "Michel Sardou?"
[SOUND: Music by Michel Sardou]
Even more entirely unknown abroad than Johnny, Sardou is becoming a citizen-star who's said, wealth tax or no wealth tax, he's staying in France.
In Paris, I'm John Laurenson for Marketplace.