Tuesday, June 26, 2012

French Legislation Taxing Non-Resident Investment Funds While Exempting Domestic Funds Violated EU Law on Free Movement of Capital

French legislation taxing dividends paid to non-resident collective investment funds at 25 percent, while exempting domestic funds from the tax, violated EU law prohibiting restrictions on the movement of capital between Member States and between Member States and the US, ruled the European Court of Justice. A difference in the tax treatment of dividends according to an investment fund’s place of residence may discourage non-resident funds from investing in French companies and also discourage French investors from buying shares in non-resident funds. In addition, the court said that there was no overriding public interest that justified the difference in tax treatment of resident and non-resident  undertakings for collective investments in transferable securities funds (UCITS).  The case was brought by collective investment funds from the United States and three EU Member States that had invested in shares in French companies and received dividends from those shares subject to the withholding tax. Santander Asset Management SGIIC SA, et al. v. Ministre du Budget, des Comptes publics, de la Fonction publique et de la Réforme de l’État, European Court of Justice, May 10, 2012, Cases C-338/11 to C-347/11.
The difference in treatment introduced by the legislation could not be justified by the need to preserve the coherence of the French tax system in the absence of any direct link between the exemption from withholding tax on nationally sourced dividends received by a resident UCITS and the taxation of those dividends as income received by the shareholders. Similarly, the French Government failed to put forward any evidence to substantiate its claim that taxation affecting solely and specifically non-resident UCITS is justified by the need for effective fiscal supervision. 

The Court also rejected the argument that bilateral conventions on the avoidance of double taxation concluded between the French Republic and the Member State or non-Member State concerned ensure that shareholders in resident and non-resident UCITS receive similar tax treatment. That argument, said the Court, is based on the incorrect premise that shareholders in resident UCITS are themselves resident for tax purposes in France, whereas the shareholders in US and other non-resident collective funds are resident for tax purposes in the US or other State in which the UCITS concerned is established.

In fact, said the Court, it is not unusual for a shareholder in a UCITS which is not resident in France to be resident for tax purposes in France or for a shareholder in a UCITS resident in France to be resident for tax purposes in the US or another EU country. Under the contested legislation, nationally-sourced dividends paid to a resident distributing UCITS are exempt from tax even in cases in which the French Republic does not exercise its tax jurisdiction over the dividends redistributed by such a UCITS, in particular when they are paid to shareholders who are resident for tax purposes in the US or another Member State.  

At the same time, nationally-sourced dividends paid to non-resident distributing UCITS are taxed at a rate of 25 percent irrespective of the tax situation of their shareholders. The Court concluded that the criterion for determining the tax treatment established by the legislation at issue is not the tax situation of the shareholder but solely the resident status of the collective investment fund.