NECHIN, Belgium: The last time a big star lit up this sleepy village of potato fields and rain-drenched pastures was in 1667, when the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, stopped by for the day.
But even he may not have created quite the commotion caused by Gerard Depardieu, the celebrated actor, turbulent bon vivant and, since a visit to the mayor's office here on December 7 to register as a resident, France's most reviled tax exile.
''I thought it was a joke,'' said the mayor, Daniel Senesael, recalling his disbelief when he was first told that Depardieu intended to leave his mansion in Paris and move to Nechin, a rural settlement in Belgium with just 2200 people, two cafes, a fast-food fry shop, a ruined chateau and no cinema.
''Let's be honest, this is not Las Vegas,'' Mr Senesael said. ''There are no lights and no discos. I get flooded with complaints when anyone suggests opening even a wind farm.''
For Depardieu, and scores of wealthy French citizens who live here, however, Nechin does have one seductive asset: it is beyond the reach of the French tax authorities but so close to France that an unmarked border running through the village puts the gardens of some properties in France and adjoining houses in Belgium.
''Nobody should be astonished that big fortunes have found a certain fiscal advantage'' in moving to this side of the border, said Mr Senesael, whose domain covers Nechin and other hamlets that form the Entity of Estaimpuis. Depardieu's critics, he said, should direct their ire not at the actor but at the failure of European governments to harmonise taxes across the European Union.
Belgium has higher income taxes for most people than in much of Europe, but the country is much easier on the rich than France, where the government of President Francois Hollande has announced a ''temporary supertax'' of 75 per cent on annual incomes of more than €1 million ($1.27 million).
France's Constitutional Council on Saturday declared the tax unconstitutional, prompting the government to announce that it would introduce a revised version next year. France also has a ''wealth tax'' on assets worth more than $US1.7 million, something that does not exist in Belgium, as well as higher taxes on capital gains and inheritance.
''We've abolished border controls but not all the other stupidities,'' said Philippe Vandenhemel, the owner of a garage just outside Nechin that sells and repairs imported American cars.
Mr Vandenhemel scoffed at attacks on the movie star by French politicians and commentators. ''If I were in his shoes, I would do exactly the same thing and leave,'' he said.
Depardieu, he added, will benefit not only from lower taxes in Belgium but also from the fact that ''we Belgians are not jealous and don't mind people getting rich''. ''Jealousy is France's national disease,'' he said.
Nechin, said Mr Senesael, had been welcoming people from France for decades and they now accounted for 28 per cent of the population. The arrivals include about 20 members of the Mulliez family, one of France's richest clans, which controls the supermarket chain Auchan.
The traffic is not all one-way. Many Belgians shop in France, where the sales tax is much lower. This, Mr Senesael said, costs Belgium ''hundreds of millions of euros'' and shows why Europe needs to harmonise its taxes.
Mr Hollande has been pushing for that, too, but is not likely to get very far, especially because other countries suspect that Paris wants to raise everyone else's rates to French levels.
The New York Times