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Column: The death of football in France?

FILE - This Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012, file photo shows France's Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, Francois Hollande, during a campaign meeting in Rouen, Normandy. A proposal from Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande to levy a 75 percent tax on the super-rich is infuriating French football administrators. They warn that the proposed tax, which Hollande says would apply to those earning over 1 million euros annually, will cause the best footballers to flee to other countries with lower tax rates. FILE - This Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012, file photo shows France's Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, Francois Hollande, during a campaign meeting in Rouen, Normandy. A proposal from Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande to levy a 75 percent tax on the super-rich is infuriating French football administrators. They warn that the proposed tax, which Hollande says would apply to those earning over 1 million euros annually, will cause the best footballers to flee to other countries with lower tax rates. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler, file)
By John Leicester
AP Sports Columnist / March 7, 2012
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PARIS—The best and therefore richest footballers in France fled as fast as their sports cars would carry them, pockets stuffed with cash from hurriedly emptied bank accounts and trailing agents and tax lawyers gleefully rubbing their hands.

Quite a doomsday scenario, eh? Yet French football administrators, coaches and players say an exodus like this could become reality if the would-be next president of France levies his proposed new 75 percent salary tax on the super-rich. Basically, they are warning: If you take more of our money, we're off; goodbye, not au revoir.

Forget that old chestnut often trotted out by those in sport that they're not concerned with politics, that the political and sporting worlds shouldn't mix. When politicians start eyeing sport's high earners and question whether their wages are financially and morally justified, it seems they are very interested. In sport, too, it appears all politics are local.

If alarmist warnings of a player exodus are true, France could be facing a fascinating debate if Socialist candidate Francois Hollande is elected president on May 6. In times of economic crisis, what is more important: supplying opium to the people in the shape of top-quality football that can entertain otherwise unhappy fans or squeezing more tax from super-wealthy players, even if that drives them away? What does France want: to be a great football nation or a fairer nation?

Even though the vast majority of earners in France wouldn't be liable, Hollande's tax has been a headline-grabber in the presidential campaign, partly because football is proving to be among the most vocal of its critics. Only income above 1 million euros ($1.31 million) would face the top whack of 75 percent. The first million earned would be taxed at lower rates. Just 3,000 of the highest-earning taxpayers in France are likely to be affected.

From French league president Frederic Thiriez down, the refrain is often the same: top players will flee to countries with lower taxes, leaving France -- the 1998 World Cup champion -- with second-rate football. Thiriez estimates 120-150 players -- about one-quarter of those in France's top division -- earn enough to make them liable for Hollande's tax. In Italy, Germany, England and Spain, which have Europe's strongest leagues and clubs, top income tax rates range from 43 to 52 percent. The current top rate in France is 41 percent.

"It would be the death of French football," Thiriez told sports newspaper L'Equipe. To RMC radio, he spoke of a "catastrophe" and of France relegated to "play in the second division of Europe, along with Slovenia or countries like that."

Michel Seydoux, president of current French champion, Lille, said Hollande's tax would produce "an impoverished spectacle."

"What do people come to see? Good matches. Especially in a period of crisis, they need happiness and distractions," he told RMC. "Less spectacle on the pitch means fewer spectators. Broadcasters will pay less for a spectacle that will be less interesting. The sponsors will disappear."

Hollande claims to have ample support from sports people and opinion polls suggest his tax proposal is striking a chord with voters. He's thrown back the criticism from football, suggesting it is living too well. Specifically, he cited the multimillion euro salary the Qatari owners of Paris Saint-Germain reportedly pay their Italian manager, Carlo Ancelotti.

"Football administrators need to clean house a bit," Hollande said. "Does the level of our league justify such astronomic salaries?"

No, at least not according to some fans at PSG's 4-1 home win over Ajaccio in the league on Sunday. PSG's owners are splurging cash in their drive to become a force in European football, reportedly spending more than 100 million euros on players this season. There's something of a champagne feel now at the Paris club's Parc des Princes, with the throaty roar of expensive cars filtering up from the stadium basement.

"When you see their cars in the garage here, it makes you sick," said Thomas Mascheretti, a fan who approved of Hollande's proposal.

Another supporter, Timothee Lenoir, said: "It's really sad if football players cannot understand that, in a crisis, you have to tax those who earn the most money. That's the way it is. Other European countries should do the same thing. Yes, there's a risk that players will leave. But a guy like (captain) Mamadou Sakho who loves PSG will stay even if he earns more than one million. It's up to the coach and administrators to find other reasons to make them stay."

But fan Jean-Jacques Feral said he feared the tax might drive away players. "If there are fewer good players, I wouldn't come. That's for sure."

Ancelotti said simply: "If I have to pay 75 percent, I'm going to pay, because I am a citizen."

PSG defender Christophe Jallet was more outspoken.

If the tax is levied, "We'll have the feeling that we're not getting much for our work. Yes, perhaps it will lead to a massive exodus of professional players."

"Those lucky enough to succeed are somewhat being shot in the foot," he said.

"It's pure populism, in the approach to the elections, to ingratiate oneself with ordinary folk," said player agent Bruno Satin.

Experts outside France say the burden of Hollande's proposal would likely fall on French clubs, not players. To keep and recruit the best, owners may have to make up the amount players lose to the extra tax.

"But you're looking at only probably a limited number of clubs that could afford to even contemplate considering doing that. It would be a significant problem for French football," said Chris Farnell, a sports lawyer in England.

German lawyer Gregor Reiter, director of the German association of player agents, said the tax could hurt French football "but it's not going to cause the ultimate death."

"One advantage rich people have is that they are rich," he noted. "So first of all they are able to hire extremely expensive and extremely well-trained tax lawyers. Secondly, they are able to move their assets to another country. That's exactly what is going to happen."

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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