“Paradox” is what the New York Times called France’s ability to attract €42.5 billion in foreign investment through October this year. Only China and the US were ahead for the first two quarters. A paradox because it shouldn’t happen. Investors should be scared off by restrictive labor laws, high income-tax rates, high cost of labor, and now the mud-wrestling bouts over nationalizing some industrial plants. But turns out, astute multinational corporations pay practically no income tax.
As if to underline the harsh reality in France, the article ran the same day that Texas Instruments announced its intention to shutter a research and development plant at Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, in southern France, as part of its corporate weight-loss program. Of the 541 employees, 517 would be axed. The remainder would be transferred. It would leave TI with fewer than 100 employees in France. But companies, like TI, that are packing up their marbles are not subtracted from the foreign investment total.
Yet France can be a veritable gold mine: it offers tax credits of 30% of R&D expenditures of up to €100 million. For the first two years, these credits are even higher. A huge benefit for small companies. “You can recoup a lot of your R&D expenses,” said Gene Bajorinas, Vice President of Novian Health, a biotech outfit from Chicago. “It’s an ideal scenario.”
As for large companies, the article cites other benefits—an educated workforce, infrastructure, and so on—to explain why Google located its headquarters for southern Europe in Paris, why Amazon is building a second distribution center, and why 171 foreign companies set up manufacturing plants in 2011, way ahead of Germany and the UK. A phenomenon Ernst and Young partner Marc Lhermitte called “paradoxical.”
It’s not a paradox. Last year, when French authorities raided Groupe Partouche, which owns hotels, casinos, restaurants, hot springs, and online gambling operations, they stumbled upon invoices from Microsoft and Google for ads and promotions. The invoices hadn’t been issued by the subsidiaries in France that had done the work, but by subsidiaries in Ireland. This led police and tax authorities to raid local Google offices in June 2011 and Microsoft offices in June 2012. Facebook offices were raided during the peak of summer.
Then, November 1, tax authorities raided Google offices at four locations in Paris and seized files. They apparently suspected Google of selling online ads to French companies without declaring revenues from those transactions in France—but in Ireland, where it declares its European profits. Google claims that its work in France is nothing but low-level “marketing assistance and service support.” While generating over €1.25 billion in revenues in France in 2011, it paid only about €5 million in corporate taxes there.
“I am very proud of the structure that we set up,” explained Google Chairman Eric Schmidt last week as it became known that Google might be liable for €1.7 billion in back taxes and penalties in France. “We did it based on the incentives that the governments offered us to operate,” he added. “It’s called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.”
They hadn’t been the first ones. Yahoo and Amazon had already been hit, as had eBay. But on December 7, eBay’s office in Paris was raided with a very public display of force. Police cars pulled up, officers rushed inside, others blocked the entrances. The problem: in 2011, eBay and its subsidiary PayPal had declared only about €22 million in revenues and paid €1.35 million in corporate income taxes to the French government, compared to €1.18 billion in revenues that they declared in Germany.
Multinationals have always been able to slither through tax codes around the world—the ability of GE and Boeing, for example, to not pay income taxes in the US despite their immense profits has become legendary (CTJ report). So corporate giants, such as Google and eBay, have perfected their methods for France. Among other strategies, they rely on subsidiaries in Ireland, the Netherlands, and then offshore tax havens to shift revenues and income away from France.
Amazon’s subsidiary in France, for example, receives only a small commission off each sale. The rest of the revenue is routed overseas. Not illegal, per se. And proving that French law has been violated appears to be tricky. Companies are not expected to roll over. The fight in the French judicial system might be long and ineffectual. Meanwhile, France remains, contradictory as this may seem, a low-tax jurisdiction for foreign multinationals.