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March 1, 2020

Taxes and Tariffs: The U.S. Response to France’s Digital Tax

France's Digital TaxHow it All Started

Back in July of 2019, France passed what was dubbed a “digital tax” targeting the largest tech companies. Impacting approximately 30 big companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, the tax applies to revenues earned from digital services of companies that earn more than $830 million in total and at least $27.86 million in France. The tax levy is a 3 percent charge on revenue from digital services.

The United States soon responded with threatening 100 percent tariffs on certain classes of French luxury goods, such as wine, champagne, cheese and makeup. These tariffs were estimated to cover more than $2.4 billion in French goods per year.

Responses on Both Sides

French President Emmanuel Macron came out to comment that the digital tax is not intended to be an anti-American move, and that big tech companies of all stripes could be covered by the tax. The criteria that determines who is subject to the digital tax, however, means that essentially only American companies are the ones being taxed.

Some in the United States claim it’s as simple as jealously over our strong technology sector, while others say that the main motivation for the French tax is a need to mitigate burgeoning budget deficits.

President Trump’s Reaction

Rarely one to back down on international trade issues, President Donald Trump criticized the digital tax for unfairly targeting American tech companies, going so far as to call out the European Union as behaving worse than China in its trading relationship with the United States. He reiterated his stance that he’s willing to fight tariffs with tariffs.

Negotiations with the EU

U.S. and European Union officials are negotiating an agreement over taxing big tech, but that didn’t stop the current treasury secretary from threatening more retaliatory tariffs. Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, recently said that the United States will impose new tariffs on French automobile imports if the issue isn’t resolved to America’s satisfaction. He claimed the digital tax is purely arbitrary, hence his random call for taxing automobiles in response. Moreover, Mnuchin called the tax “discriminatory in nature” at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.

Taxes and Tariffs on Hold

For now, France is delaying the implementation of its digital tax through the end of 2020 in response to U.S. pressure on threatened luxury goods and automobile tariffs. They aim to come to a resolution before year-end with the Trump administration. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire is optimistic an agreement can be worked out and believes entering a trade war with the United States would be foolish.

The Future

Currently, other European countries, including Britain and Italy, are acting against big tech companies they believe don’t pay their fair share of taxes to their countries. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said that the United States is willing to go to bat and protect its companies with retaliatory tariffs in these cases as well. For now, not much is settled – but we should see a clearer direction before the year is out.


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