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Emigration as leverage

Günther Birkenstock / sadJanuary 8, 2013

Actor Gerard Depardieu has defected to Russia, on tax grounds. Brigitte Bardot wants to do the same, in apparent criticism of France's animal rights record. Does this mark a trend among French actors?

Depardieu wearing a local costume showing his Russian passport during ceremony in Saransk
Image: Reuters

Were Depardieu not an international film icon, the case would likely not have garnered so much media attention. It's also unlikely that the desire for Russian citizenship would have been so quickly fulfilled, if at all, had it not come from a popular French actor.

It's a tabloid story that has become a political issue - one from which Russia, and especially its President Vladimir Putin, profits. Depardieu's media presence and critique of France also appear to have fuelled Bardot's bid for Russian citizenship, which she based on an apparent lack of animal protection in France.

Tax exiles

At first it appeared that Depardieu would emigrate to neighboring Belgium. He had purchased a house there last autumn, apparently because income taxes in his homeland were too high.

French President Francois Hollande intends, as of January this year, to tax millionaires at a rate of 75 percent, although the constitutional council has halted the initiative.

As Depardieu announced his plans to leave France, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called it "unpatriotic" and "pathetic." The conflict escalated, with ripple effects including present discussion in France about the difference in its national tax policy to the rest of Europe.

In addition, the high income of stars has gathered media attention, including discussion of how this could negatively affect the French film industry.

The Russian campaign

Before Depardieu could move to Belgium, Russia came into the picture. Putin announced on December 20 that he would grant his friend Russian citizenship. Putin signed a special decree and handed Depardieu a Russian passport last Saturday (05.01.2013). Depardieu was received with great ceremony in Russia's Republic of Mordovia that weekend.

Putin greets Depardieu
Depardieu and Putin are ever emphasizing their deep friendshipImage: Reuters

In the film star's home country, Depardieu's praise of the Russian government sparked incomprehension and criticism. In an open letter to the French media, as well as in a video, the actor spoke of his great love for Russia and Putin, describing Russia as a "great democracy" where one could "live well."

Many view Putin's apparent generosity and emphatic closeness to Depardieu as a political calculation to ride on the star's popularity. Russian journalist Andrei Gratshov, of the opposition newspaper "Novaya Gazeta," complained that Depardieu is emphasizing his friendship to Putin during a questionable time for the Russian president. Russian author Eduard Limonov also criticized the move, calling on Depardieu to appear on January 31 with his new passport to protest limitations on the right to assembly in Moscow.

André Glucksmann, a prominent philosopher in France and Germany, also expressed an opinion: he told the German newspaper "Der Tagesspiegel" that he was ashamed of Depardieu due to his close relationship with Putin and with the controversial Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Emigration as blackmail?

Depardieu's public shunting of France has apparently motivated other prominent people to use the threat of emigration to promote their interests. French actress and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot had repeatedly expressed indignation over the planned killing of two sick circus elephants in Paris.

Bardot in 2007
Bardot is also threatening to turn her back on FranceImage: AP

Over the past several weeks, Bardot announced that she intended to follow in Depardieu's footsteps, and would soon pay the Russian statesman a visit. Bardot has been an animal rights activist for four decades. She supported the anti-immigration National Front in France's 2012 elections. However, this is the first time Bardot has mentioned emigration - perhaps because it hadn't occurred to her before.

Singing Putin's tune

Depardieu and Bardot have also apparently pulled famous French singer Mireille Mathieu into the limelight, as well. Mathieu enjoys wide popularity in Russia, where she often performs.

On a visit last September, she sharply criticized the behavior of female punk band Pussy Riot, saying the women committed sacrilege with their performance in a Moscow church, a protest action against Putin's close connection to the Russian Orthodox church.

A Moscow court last August convicted the band of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, sentencing them to two years in jail.

While numerous artists across the world voiced widespread international solidarity with the band members, Mathieu did exactly the opposite.