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French tycoons in war of words over the rich tax

A sharp-tongued public dispute has broken out between two of Europe's most prominent tycoons over a proposed French tax on the superrich.

Edouard de Rothschild, the multimillionaire stakeholder of French newspaper Liberation, is defending the left-leaning daily's stinging criticism of Europe's richest man, who is seeking citizenship in Belgium, where taxes are lower.

Rothschild, a member of the famed European banking dynasty, said the controversial headline Monday that told Bernard Arnault — the CEO of fashion giant LVMH who's worth an estimated $41 billion — to "Get lost, rich jerk" amounted to a "beautiful marketing operation."

It accused Arnault of trying to dodge the Socialist government's planned 75 percent tax on the highest earners — a charge he vehemently denies.

On Tuesday, Liberation continued the onslaught, wrapping its edition in a four-page special cover plastered top to bottom with promotions for Yves-Saint Laurent — an archrival of top LVMH fashion houses Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton.

The paper compares Arnault to the "nobles and opulent bourgeois" hostile to the 1789 French Revolution who, in a bid to keep their fortune, regrouped outside of France.

"I thought the front page of Liberation was shocking. One mustn't insult people," said Paris resident Audrey Palierne on Tuesday.

Arnault, certainly, was not amused.

Via LVMH Monday night, he announced he's suing the paper for "public insult" — over the offending headline's "vulgarity and brutality."

But Rothschild, who owns a majority stake in Liberation, later said on French television that he was "unshocked" by the headline, accompanied by a full-page image of a smug-looking Arnault ready to jet off with a packed suitcase. It was, he said, in keeping with the "provocative style" of the newspaper — a leftist periodical co-founded in 1973 by philosopher and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre.

But then the gloves came off.

In an obvious jibe at the fashion magnate — whose patriotism was publicly questioned by French President Francois Hollande over the weekend — Rothschild said he would pay taxes in France "wholeheartedly."

"It seems to me that when the richest people are asked to make an ... effort of national solidarity, you agree to it," he added. "I'm naturally concerned."

The media mogul's concern translated itself into yet another stinging headline Tuesday "addressed to the LVMH boss."

"Bernard, if you come back, I'll cancel everything!" reads the headline, linking him with the flashy and unpopular former President Nicolas Sarkozy — who allegedly sent an SMS to his second wife Cecilia following their separation in 2008 with the same words.

Arnault, a friend of Sarkozy's, was witness at his marriage with Cecilia. The "Get lost, rich jerk" headline is a play on a much-criticized comment by Sarkozy when as president he told a visitor at the annual agricultural fair who refused to shake his hand, "Get lost, poor jerk."

The criticism had not gone unnoticed by Arnault's many admirers in and around France.

"What I deplore is that nobody seems capable of first paying tribute to Bernard Arnault and what he did for our country, which is extraordinary," said Laurence Parisot, president of the employers' union, the Movement of French Enterprises, Tuesday. "He is an exceptional business manager."

For some, weary of what they perceive as a tit-for-tat dispute, it's the government that has to do the answering.

"Now the government must take responsibility for its policy," said Paris resident Patrice Debono. "And if that leads to people leaving the country it now has to come to terms with it. We'll see where that will take us."

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Thomas Adamson can be followed at http://Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP