In May France elected Socialist François Hollande as president. Sick and tired of overly opulent and wealth-friendly former president Nicolas Sarkozy, much of France was momentarily overjoyed, particularly at one of Hollande’s more ambitious campaign promises: a 75% income tax on France’s top earners.
Hollande stuck to his promise. Not that anyone doubted he would: while Sarkozy is perhaps best remembered for his distastefully extravagant fête on the night of his election five Mays ago, Hollande ,who once said on television “I hate the rich,” declared while campaigning earlier this year that his “true enemy” was not a political party, but rather “the world of finance.”
Hollande’s draconian measures have caused quite the stir, particularly among the wealthiest French businesspeople. In fact, at times the story seems to be straight out of Atlas Shrugged. Bernard Arnault, a French citizen and Europe’s richest man, is seeking Belgian citizenship, as is actor Gérard Dépardieu. Wealthy French model Laetitia Casta has moved to London. Alain Ducasse, a chef, became a naturalized citizen of Monaco. The list goes on.
According to some, it is the accompanying spike in the capital gains tax – which recently doubled to 60% – not the 75% levy on income, that has spurred the mass exodus. Regardless, though the precise cause may be in question, the outcome is clearer every day.
This was all well and good for Hollande and his government until, earlier this fall, a select group of French citizens decided to mobilize its forces. Enter les Pigeons.
Les Pigeons – French slang for ”suckers” – are a group of French entrepreneurs outraged, first, at the Socialist government’s new measures and, second, at the ambivalent attitude toward self-made businesspeople in France. For anonymity’s sake, the group, composed primarily of 25-34-year-olds, mobilized primarily online. But it made sure its voices were heard.
So a group of French people got together to protest a controversial government decree. This is nothing new. But here’s the interesting part: les Pigeons actually got the French state – the most bureaucratic of bureaucracies – to listen. As The Economist put it: “Usually it takes millions of demonstrators on the streets to force a French government to back down…But the pigeon movement captured the imagination thanks to its spontaneity, its grass-roots nature and its youth.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said entrepreneurs selling their own business after a certain period of time would remain subject to the previous 19% flat tax rate rather than the new 60% capital gains rate.
Even more interesting, though, is what the French government’s response means: though he may badmouth French businesspeople from dawn to dusk, Hollande recognizes what really runs the French economy (the world’s fifth-largest). He can abuse them, but he can’t afford to lose them.
At the end of October, their goals having been at least partially achieved, les Pigeons decided to lay low and tone down their presence for fear of becoming counter-productive or overly-politicized. Pour l’instant, at least.
If you’re still curious as to where these French entrepreneurs are coming from, I’ve translated their call to action from October 22 (You can find in the original French here):
“We, entrepreneurs whom much of the mass have questioned, are at last speaking with no half-measure, without ambiguity.
The movement of Les Pigeons aims to oppose the new taxes laid out in the Financial Law of 2013, which run counter to entrepreneurship in France.
Some have named themselves Pigeons, and have spoken out in the name of our group of anonymous entrepreneurs.
This anonymity has allowed us to launch debate, but at the same time to avoid personal attacks of which we would doubtless have been the target.
We, the founder Pigeons, have promoted this page to 70,000 people and to the malaise of French entrepreneurs faced with the ineptitude of political choices.
We have to express ourselves in complete transparency and share our experiences.
We, the entrepreneurs at the heart of this movement, who have promoted it night and day for more than two weeks, have read all of the messages.
The movement of les Pigeons, frankly, has had success: first, because it is necessary to oppose tax revenues from a surplus of transfers of social capital, and second, because we must oppose a new measure punishing entrepreneurs – as if there were so many before.
Like many heads of businesses, we have created our companies after starting with few resources.
Like so many others, we have fought to succeed, we have endured the same difficulties at every stage of the life of a business: the launch, the failures, the development, the financing, the times when we lacked resources, and so many other obstacles.
We have been summoned to prove our patriotism by the government – but that is precisely what les Pigeons have expressed in rebelling.
We express today our exasperation in the face of measures suppressing French entrepreneurship.
Otherwise, the movement’s vision doesn’t even amount to the CEO so often disparaged.
Entrepreneurship is a state of mind shared by many of the French, who must prevail in the face of the absurdity of certain laws or political decisions.
It is time we strengthen our actions in favor of businesses, jobs, and growth in France.
The movement of les Pigeons has taught us one thing: entrepreneurs want to be left to find their own way.
Know that we remain vigilant and mobilized.
For an angry group, there are quite a lot of us: we must be heard urgently by those who govern us, and it is indispensable to pursue our actions, whether individually or near the many representative associations and institutions.
We have thus decided to go further in the initial movement of les Pigeons: we have to move beyond the boundaries of the Web and intensify our mobilization in the weeks to come, of which we will inform you.
Finally, we give a large thanks to all who have, do, and will continue to support us.”