Waiting for Depardieu: How One Modest Village Acquired French Celebrity Status

In the Café à l'Amitié in Néchin, the talk over the Belgian beers is of Gégé. Since the French film star Gérard Depardieu was spotted in the local gastronomic restaurant after visiting the notary to acquire a house in the village, the chatter has been of little else, says Pierrot, 52, in for his lunchtime apéritif.

The word is that the famous bon vivant described by the Gallic press as an "ogre of French cinema" is buying an impressive pied-à-terre in Néchin, which sits on the Franco-Belgian border.

Gégé, as he is fondly known, is expected to take ownership of the house on what locals have nicknamed Millionaires Road, just down from the à l'Amitié, this week.

It's hard to say quite how impressive the property is, as it is almost entirely hidden by a massive hedge of autumnal russet and gold leaves that show no sign of dropping – but it does, they say, have a helipad on the back lawn.

Why might the wealthy star of more than 170 films want to live in an unremarkable Belgian settlement?

The clue is not in the friendly locals, the grazing cows and horses, the flat potato fields, the lingering smell from the tannery in neighbouring Estaimpuis or even the more pleasantly odorous soap factory.

Neither is it in the village centrepiece, the Saint Amand church, rebuilt after the first world war, nor, if truth be told, in the fancy Ferme du Château restaurant with its foie gras and spéculoos or lobster and artichoke and wild salmon, where Depardieu ate.

The clue is the number of converted farms, renovated manor houses and luxurious modern mansions that crouch behind high walls, imposing gates, security cameras and rows of geometrically trimmed hedges. And the giveaway, just a small step, but huge fiscal leap away, the shuttered former "customs house" marking the border between France and Belgium.

Néchin is neither picturesque nor particularly noteworthy. But its attraction lies in its position just inside French-speaking Wallonia in southern Belgium, which has lower taxes than France, making it a magnet for French fleeing what they call the "fisc", and the 75% tax rate that France's Socialist president, François Hollande, plans to introduce in a few months on anyone earning more than €1m a year.

Frédéric Delepierre, a journalist with the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, which broke the Depardieu story, grew up in Néchin, and says wealthy French have been coming to live in the village for at least 20 years.

The reason, he says, is obvious. "Look around. The village is dead. There is nothing here, nothing. What could possibly attract someone like Depardieu and all the other wealthy French who live here to Néchin?"

The French tax exile's path to Belgium – like Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco – is a well-worn one. Singer Johnny Hallyday trod it a few years ago but found the Belgians can be stubborn when it comes to attributing nationality, and upped sticks to Los Angeles. Billionaire businessman Bernard Arnault, head of the luxury goods company Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, caused outrage in France in September when he was reported to be seeking Belgian citizenship for "business" reasons.

Hollande's plans to hit the rich have been blamed for recent tax defections – even though the Elysée claims the 75% band is a temporary measure and will affect only 3,000 of the wealthiest families – but the exodus cannot be pinned entirely on the Socialist president.

Already an estimated 27% of Néchin's 2,000 residents are thought to be French, including a dozen members of the Mulliez family, who own the popular French supermarkets Auchan and the Decathlon sports stores, along with several properties in the village.

Depardieu, 63, has neither confirmed nor denied his imminent arrival (he merely got cross when asked last week) but it is hard to keep a secret in a village.

It is, however, seen as symbolic that Depardieu, the son of a metal worker and a man who rose from humble beginnings to become a giant of the French screen in every way (not to mention a man who plays Gallic hero Obélix in the Astérix films) should be thinking of leaving.

Less than 10km from Néchin over the border, the irony is not lost on Pierre Dubois, the mayor of Roubaix, one of the poorest towns in France, who urged the "sacred monster of French cinema" to settle in Roubaix.

"Dear Gérard, until the day it is extended beyond our borders, the métro stops at Roubaix. We invite you into our world city. Roubaix will live up to this! It is a city with a strong identity; a beautiful and rebellious image," he wrote.

Roubaix, to the north-east of Lille, lies in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, for years stereotyped as a grim, rain-soaked and miserable region of abandoned coalmines, derelict textile factories, and economic and human depression. Today, around 20% of the working population is unemployed and 46% of its 100,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line.

In recent years the town, twinned with Bradford, has battled to shake off its gloomy image, starting with the transformation of its extraordinary art deco public baths into a world-class museum and art gallery.

Bertrand Moreau, the mayor's spokesperson, says the invitation was tongue in cheek. "It was done with a nod and a wink. Nobody seriously expects Depardieu to come here … but you know, why not? We have some fabulous big, old mansion houses in Roubaix at three times less expense. It's only a few miles difference and the people of Roubaix would be very proud to welcome him."

Moreau admits that Roubaix, recently named one of the French government's priority security zones, has its problems, namely unemployment and crime, but adds: "The town may be poor monetarily, but it has a rich cultural and social tissue. There's a real solidarity between people here."

He added: "I think French people are disappointed with Depardieu. They expected more militancy from him. We're in a crisis and everyone is having to make an effort, especially those who can afford to do so. He can afford to do so but is leaving.

"Just as in the war when there were those who stayed and joined the Resistance and those who left, we would obviously prefer people to stay and resist."

At the à l'Amitié, where the beer is now flowing to the retro strains of the Everly Brothers and Tom Jones, Eric, like many Néchinois, is largely indifferent to Depardieu's imminent arrival.

"We don't see these people. They hide behind their walls and hedges. It's just another rich person. Everyone is talking about it now, but we know it won't change anything," he said.

Other drinkers nodded in agreement. "Néchin has a reputation as a fiscal paradise and this is true, but we don't see the people who come here," said French-born businessman François Fermont, 37, whose family moved to Néchin in the 1980s. The Belgians don't mind. There are some complaints about property prices rising, and local taxes rising, but rich people have been coming here for years."

One middle-aged woman, who didn't want to give her name, added: "It would be great if he came here and instead of just using the village, made it alive again. That's what we need. Something or someone to liven it up. But will he even live here? Voilà! That's the question."

Propping up the bar, Pierrot, who still lives in the family house in Néchin where he was born, smiled wryly. "If he comes here what's he going to do? He will be so bored. I suppose he can mow his big lawn, but there's nothing else."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Kim Willsher Nechin, Belgium, for The Observer on Sunday 18th November 2012 00.07 Europe/London

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image: © Jean-Marc Ayrault