The French Accor hotel group was the subject of an tax audit related to FY 2010, during which the tax authorities found that Accor had not invoiced a fee for the use of its trademarks by its Brazilian subsidiary, Hotelaria Accor Brasil, in an amount of 8,839,047. The amount not invoiced was considered a deemed distribution of profits and the tax authorities applied a withholding tax rate of 25% to the amount which resulted in withholding taxes in an amount of EUR 2.815.153.
An appeal was filed by Accor with the Administrative Court.
In a judgment of 7 July 2020, the Administrative Court partially discharged Accor from the withholding tax up to the amount of the application of the conventional reduced rate of 15% (related to dividends), and rejected the remainder of the claim.
The Administrative Court considered that income deemed to be distributed did not fall within the definition of dividends under article 10 of the tax treaty with Brazil and could not, in principle, benefit from the reduced rate. However in comments of an administrative instruction from 1972 (BOI 14-B-17-73, reproduced in BOI-INT-CVB-BRA, 12 August 2015) relating to the Franco-Brazilian tax treaty, it was stated, that the definition of dividends used by the agreement covers “on the French side, all products considered as distributed income within the meaning of the CGI”. The Administrative Court noted that such a definition would necessarily include distributed income within the meaning of the provisions of Article 109 of the CGI”.
The tax authorities appealed against this judgment.
Judgement of the Administrative Court of Appeal
The Court allowed the appeal of the tax authorities and set aside the judgment in which the Administrative Court had partially discharged Accor from the withholding tax to which it was subject in respect of the year 2010.
“Under the terms of Article 10 of the tax treaty concluded between the French Republic and the Federative Republic of Brazil on 10 September 1971: “1. Dividends paid by a company which is a resident of a Contracting State to a resident of the other Contracting State may be taxed in that other State. / 2. However, dividends may be taxed in the State in which the company paying the dividends has its tax domicile and according to the laws of that State, but the tax so charged shall not exceed 15 per cent of the gross amount of the dividends / (…) 5. (a) The term “dividend” as used in this Article means income from shares, “jouissance” shares or “jouissance” warrants, mining shares, founders’ shares or other rights, not being debt-claims, participating in profits, as well as income from other corporate units which is assimilated to income from shares by the taxation law of the State of which the company making the distribution is resident. (…) “.
It follows from these stipulations that the dividends mentioned in Article 10 of the Franco-Brazilian Convention must be defined as the income distributed by a company to its members by virtue of a decision taken by the general meeting of its shareholders or unit holders under the conditions provided for by the law of 24 July 1966, as amended, on commercial companies, which does not include income deemed to be distributed within the meaning of Article 109(1) of the French General Tax Code. Neither these stipulations, nor any other clause of the Franco-Brazilian agreement, prevent the taxation in France of income considered as distributed to Hotelaria Accor Brasil by Accor, according to French tax law, at the common law rate set, at the date of the taxation in dispute, at 25% of this income by Article 187 of the General Tax Code.”
“The Accor company claims, on the basis of Article L. 80 A of the Book of Tax Procedures, of the instruction of 8 December 1972 referenced BOI n° 14-B-17-72 relating to the tax treaty concluded between France and Brazil on 10 September 1971, which provides that: “According to paragraph 5 of Article 10, the term dividends means income from shares, jouissance shares or warrants, mining shares, founders’ shares or other profit shares with the exception of debt claims and, in general, income assimilated to income from shares by the tax legislation of the State of which the distributing company is resident. / This definition covers, on the French side, all income considered as distributed income within the meaning of the Code général des Impôts (art. 10, paragraph 5b). “However, this interpretation was brought back by an instruction referenced 4 J-2-91 of July 2, 1991, published in the Bulletin officiel des impôts n° 133 of July 11, 1991, relating to the impact of international treaties on the withholding tax applicable to income distributed outside France, according to which: “the advantages which benefit [the partners and the persons having close links with the partners] and which are considered as distributed income in domestic law retain this character in treaty law when the applicable treaty refers to dividends and gives a definition similar to that of the OECD model. On the other hand, when they benefit persons other than the partners, these benefits are subject to the treaty provisions relating to “undesignated” income, i.e. income that does not fall into any of the categories expressly defined by the applicable treaty”. Annex 1 to this instruction specifically states, with regard to Brazil, that income paid to a beneficiary who is not a shareholder of the distributing company is subject to withholding tax at the ordinary law rate of 25%. These statements must be regarded as having reported, on this particular point, the administrative interpretation contained in paragraph 2351 of the instruction of 8 December 1972. In this respect, it is irrelevant that the instruction of 8 December 1972 was fully reproduced and published by the BOFIP on 12 September 2012 under the reference BOI-INT-CVB-BRA, after the tax year in question. It follows that Accor cannot claim the benefit of the reduced conventional tax rate.”
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