French tax exiles flock to EU capital
27.09.12 @ 13:40
BRUSSELS - Marc Goldbrenner, a top salesman at Lecobel, a real estate agent in the Belgian and EU capital, says he has two or three meetings a week with French "fiscal exiles" keen to flee President Francois Hollande's new rich tax.
They are looking at town houses worth €1 million to €2.5 million with high ceilings and parquet floors in the style of George-Eugene Hausmann, a 19th century French architect.
They want to live in a belt of areas already popular with French expats and EU officials - L'Observatoire, Prince d'Orange, Place Brugmann (known as "le petit Paris"), Avenue Moliere, Place du Chatelain, the Jardin du Rois and the Etangs d'Ixelles.
The richest ones are eyeing-up the so-called "Clos du Millairdaires" - a gated compound at the end of Avenue Louise, a leafy boulevard leading from Brussels' city centre to a huge park.
They also want easy access to the Gare du Midi, a station which runs fast trains to the French capital 23 times a day.
"They are industrialists, company owners, independent people with large inheritances ... They like the ambiance here. People walk around. There are nice cafes. They want a lifestyle a bit like Paris," Goldbrenner told EUobserver on Wednesday (26 September).
A Brussels mayor created a buzz on 10 September when he told Belgian press that Bernard Arnault, France's richest man, has bought a pied-a-terre in the city.
Arnault said it has nothing to do with Hollande's tax.
But many people do not believe him. Four days after the news broke, thousands of Belgian trade unionists held a march near to his apartment in 5 Avenue d'Hougoumont in the Uccle district, yelling about "tax justice" into megaphones.
Details of the French tax - including a promised 75 percent on incomes of €1 million a year or more - are to be unveiled in Paris on Friday in a new budget designed to meet EU-demanded targets.
The top tax band for Belgian residents is 50 percent.
Meanwhile, the mini-exodus to the doorstep of the EU institutions has political implications.
Member states have not given EU officials the power to set national tax rates. But pro-tax-harmonisation hawks say that unless they do, tax tourism will spoil their efforts to balance the books.
For his part, Lecobel's Goldbrenner said French interest in Brussels went up the minute that Hollande mentioned the tax in his election campaign.
Suzanne Belgeonne, a manager at Le Lion, another high-end property agent in Brussels, noted: "There is a real movement. Over the past year we've seen a lot of French people asking for information about renting or buying in Brussels."
"It really went up after the French elections [in April]," Anne Monard, the PR manager at the Engel & Volkers agency, added.
The phenomenon is not yet big enough to boost property prices.
"I would be lying if I said I have a line of [French] Rolls Royces waiting outside my door to see me," Philippe Lienard, who runs the Metropole Properties agency in Brussels, told this website.
And the financial crisis has changed mentalities even in the haute bourgeoisie.
"Five or six years ago, they didn't really negotiate. Sellers used to say 'aha, it's the French!' and increase their prices. They [French buyers] used to compare things to the market in Paris and think everything here is cheap. But now they do research about the Belgian market before buying anything," Lecobel's Goldbrenner noted.
"The French don't pay whatever you ask these days. They know what things are worth and they can be quite tough," Jean Cormen, a director at the Victoire real estate agency in Brussels, said.
But people expect more to come as Hollande's tax bites.
"I think in the next few months we will see a real difference. I know several people back home who are planning to come here and I think it will be good for us," Sandrine Lagnien, a French expat who runs the Toucan brasserie near Place Brugmann, noted.