Less than 18 months after the latest amendment to the regime for tax-qualified RSUs in France, another amendment became effective on December 30, 2016. This amendment is the third amendment to the regime in five years, meaning that companies may (in theory) have to administer tax-qualified RSUs that are subject to three different income tax and social tax regimes. The three different qualified RSU regimes are as follows:

  • French-qualified RSUs granted after September 28, 2012 (“Pre-Macron RSUs“)
  • French-qualified RSUs granted under a plan approved by shareholders after August 7, 2015 (“Macron RSUs“)
  • French-qualified RSUs granted under a plan approved by shareholders after December 30, 2016 (“Modified Macron RSUs“)

For companies that have granted tax-qualified RSUs in the past, the question is whether they will want to continue to grant qualified RSUs after the latest changes. Similarly, companies that have granted non-qualified RSUs in France or that are starting to grant RSUs in France for the first time will want to evaluate whether they can and want to grant tax-qualified RSUs under the new regime.

Background

Granting equity awards to employees in France can be expensive because of the high employer social taxes. In particular, any income realized from a non-qualified equity award (e.g., spread at option exercise, FMV of shares at vesting of RSUs) is subject to employer social taxes at a rate of up to 46%. The 46% rate is comprised of different social insurance contributions, only some of which are subject to a cap. This means that even awards granted to highly compensated employees will remain subject to employer social taxes at a rate of approx. 25%(while the employees will have reached the contribution ceilings for the other contributions with their other compensation). If a company grants awards on a broad basis in France, makes large awards to some employees or if the stock price increases significantly after grant, accordingly, the French employer is looking at a big employer social tax liability.

Many companies have been trying to mitigate employer social taxes by granting tax-qualified awards. Several years ago (before it was possible to grant French-qualified RSUs), no employer social taxes whatsoever applied to French-qualified options. Recognizing the loss of significant tax revenue, the French government started to impose employer social taxes on tax-qualified awards, but the timing of the taxation and the tax rate have changed significantly over the years. Some of the changes have made it very difficult for companies to determine whether granting tax-qualified awards is, indeed, beneficial for them.

Determining Which Tax Regime Applies

Before we look at the possible tax benefits of granting tax-qualified RSUs (versus non-qualified RSUs), let’s first discuss under which regime companies may be able to grant qualified RSUs.

Strangely, this depends on when the plan under which the RSUs are granted was last approved by shareholders. If the plan was last approved on or before August 7, 2015, qualified RSUs can be granted only under the Pre-Macron Regime. If the plan was last approved after August 7, 2015 and before or on December 30, 2016, qualified RSUs can be granted only under the Macron Regime. If the plan was last approved after December 30, 2016, qualified RSUs can be granted only under the Modified Macron Regime.

Because it is unlikely that companies would take their plan to shareholders just to be able to grant qualified RSUs under a particular regime (or obtain approval just for a French sub-plan), the application of the different regimes is somewhat random*.

Employer Social Tax Treatment Under Different Regimes

As mentioned, the timing and rate of the employer social taxes varies significantly depending on the applicable regime and can be summarized as follows:

Non Qualified RSUs Pre-Macron RSUs Macron RSUs Modified Macron RSUs
Rate Up to 46% (same as for salary) 30% 20% 30%
Taxable event Vesting date Grant date Vesting date Vesting date
Taxable amount FMV of shares at vesting FMV of shares at grant or fair value as determined under IFRS 2 (at election of employer) FMV of shares at vesting FMV of shares at vesting

It is important to note that, if the employee forfeits the RSUs before vesting (typically because the employee terminates prior to vesting), no employer social taxes will be due under any of the regimes, except the Pre-Macron Regime. For RSUs granted under the Pre-Macron Regime, the employer has not been entitled to a refund for the employer social taxes paid at grant (which has been one of the reasons why it has been so difficult to evaluate whether such RSUs can result in employer social tax savings when compared to non-qualified RSUs). However, this might change due to a challenge that is currently pending with the French Constitutional Court.

If successful, employers will be able to apply for a refund (likely both for previously granted awards and for future awards).

Employee Tax Treatment Under Different Regimes

The employee tax treatment also varies quite a bit depending on the applicable regime, as follows:

Non Qualified RSUs Pre-Macron RSUs Macron RSUs Modified Macron RSUs
Annual vesting gain not exceeding €300,000 Portion of annual vesting gain exceeding €300,000
Taxable event / Taxable amount Vesting date/FMV of shares at vesting Sale of shares/Gain divided into Vesting Gain (FMV of shares at vesting) and Capital Gain (sale proceeds minus FMV of shares at vesting)
Income tax Taxation as a salary income

Taxed at progressive rates up to 45%

Taxation as sui generis gain

Taxed at progressive rates up to 45%

Taxation as a capital gain

Taxed at progressive rates up to 45%, but application of rebate on entire gain (i.e., vesting and capital gain) if shares hold for certain period: 50% if shares held at least 2 years; 65% if held more than 8 years

Same as Macron RSUs Same as Pre-Macron RSUs
Social taxes Up to 23% (same as for salary) of which approx. 20% is tax deductible 8% of which approx. 5.1% is tax deductible + 10% specific social contribution 15.5% on entire gain of which 5.1% is tax deductible

The gist of the above is that RSUs granted under the Pre-Macron regime are not very beneficial to the employee, even compared to non-qualified RSUs. For Macron RSUs (and for Modified Macron RSUs, provided the employee does not realize more than €300,000 in annual gains), the tax treatment can be dramatically better, but only if the employee holds the shares for at least two years after vesting.

Main Requirements under Different Regimes

Various requirements have to be met to qualify for the special tax treatment under any of the French-qualified RSU regimes. The most significant ones are as follows:

Non Qualified RSUs Pre-Macron RSUs Macron RSUs Modified Macron RSUs
Minimum Vesting Period None Two years One year One year
Minimum Holding Period None Two years from relevant vesting date Two years from grant date Two years from grant date

For Pre-Macron RSUs, this means shares generally cannot be sold any earlier than after the fourth anniversary of the grant date, as opposed to two years under the Macron and Modified Macron Regimes (exceptions may apply in the case of death or disability). This makes the Macron and Modified Macron Regimes a lot more attractive for employees.

However, several additional requirements apply that can be difficult to administer for the issuer (e.g., closed period restriction at sale, accelerated vesting at death). These requirements are the same under all of the different qualified RSU regimes.

Conclusion

Given all of the complexities related to the tax treatment and the requirements of qualified RSUs, it is almost impossible to say whether it is a good idea to grant qualified RSUs in France. So much depends on the company’s circumstances, not least on the regime under which the RSUs can be granted.

However, I would generally caution companies to grant qualified RSUs, unless they have a strong stock administration team that can properly administer these awards and keep track of the many changes that have occurred. If qualified RSUs are granted, but then not correctly administered (e.g., holding periods are disregarded), companies risk disqualifying the RSUs which can have disastrous tax consequences for both the employer and the employees (and be way worse than if the company had granted non-qualified RSUs). Companies should also consider that disqualification can occur if awards are adjusted due to corporate transactions, with the same negative tax consequences.

Furthermore, I am not convinced that we have seen the last of the changes to the qualified RSU regimes. As France prepares to elect a new President and usher in a new government, it is very possible that more tax reforms are on the horizon (especially if Mr. Macron wins the election…..).

On the other hand, I recognize that some companies have granted qualified RSUs for years and that changing to non-qualified RSUs can be a difficult “sell” to employees (and maybe the French employer). Similarly, companies that are fortunate enough to be able to grant Macron RSUs may be happy to shoulder the burden of administering French-qualified RSUs in return for a flat 20% employer social tax at vesting.

So, again, every company should carefully consider whether it makes sense to grant qualified RSUs. And, in any event, we all must stay tuned for further changes!

*That said, we are aware of a few companies that have either timed their shareholder approval to be able to rely on a specific regime (typically only possible for private companies) or that have sought shareholder approval for a French sub-plan (even though no amendments were made to the general plan).