Will ‘les drones’ join satellites in unmasking French tax cheats?

France drones tax

The success of a new satellite-based campaign to ferret out French homeowners shirking tax liabilities by failing to declare property improvements will determine whether a thus far rock-solid ban on using lower-altitude drones to peek in on the affairs of private citizens is added to that mix of snooping tools. That’s a potentially explosive possibility in a nation where the priority of protect one’s privacy is second only to dodging tax authorities.

This month marked the opening of operation foncier innovant (roughly, “innovative real estate”), a push by an array of French tax and fiscal authorities to identify and put the pinch on people who’ve failed to declare taxable property improvements. Those may include swimming pools, house extensions, garages, or – for those riche enough ­– tennis courts and heliports. This being France, even modestly size garden sheds and DIY verandas are subject to stiff taxation. However, many aren’t – remaining discreetly unreported instead.

In response, officials have taken to the skies to use current and past satellite imagery fed through artificial intelligence software to identify recent construction, and tag enhancements that haven’t been duly declared. The campaign is being started in nine of France’s 94 continental départements, after an earlier trial in a single one of those turned up 3,000 under-the-rug swimming pools in just a few weeks.

That degree of prying ­– and implied distrust motivating it – will probably suffice to get a sizable segment of French society up in arms soon (word of the effort has only just begun circulating). That din should get louder – and take on a sharp edge of sarcastic counter-accusation – with the detail that French authorities have teamed up in the push with the cloud unit Google. The company has long been one of the biggest targets of France’s accusations and court cases against GAFA tax filching. 

What does France hate more: tax dodgers or privacy-invading drones?

But wait for the lid to really blow off if officials take the next step of side-stepping tightly enforced laws banning camera-equipped drones from overflying private property or people – the very act of which is considered a flagrant violation of individual privacy. And using the craft to peep behind the fences and hedges of homeowners for evidence of stealth property enhancements (and whatever other kind of hidden private activity might be visible) would be doing precisely that – its laudable goal of making everyone pay their fair share representing insult to injury to the French esprit.

Indeed, standing laws inflict maximum penalties for anyone making those kinds of flights of up to a year in prison, and $52,000 in fines for “invasion of individual privacy.” Pilots seen by police navigating drones around parks, beaches, or outdoor events (in zones where drone flights are permitted, which often takes some looking to find) are regularly questioned about whether they’ve obtained required approval of anyone below coming into camera frame (and told to take a grounded hike if not).

Even the word “drone” was long avoided as too English-y in official texts, which before getting with the times tended to refer to aéroneufs. The craft have had to navigate a careful and often roundabout way into French society.

Chances are, then, that even as operation foncier innovant expands its aerial gaze across France, it will take a lot longer – and have to overcome deafening protest – before drones might join the effort to root out property tax dodgers. In the meantime, French fiscal authorities can remain envious of peers in Switzerland, Spain, Argentina, and elsewhere, who regularly deploy the craft over homes in the fanciest neighborhoods they can find, and freely record any and all evidence of enhancement-enjoying owners failing to pay their due.

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