Depardieu eyes home in area famed for gulags


French actor Gerard Depardieu, who has threatened to forsake his homeland for Russia to avoid massive new taxes, traveled Sunday to the central region of Mordovia, where he may next hang his hat.

Costumed women greeted Depardieu with folk dancing on the tarmac as he arrived in the regional capital of Saransk and was served blini, a traditional pancake.

The eccentric star — a multimillionaire and a household name in France, with nearly 170 films to his credit — was seen on Russian television showing off his new red passport. Depardieu has said he does not want to live in Moscow because it is too big and he prefers a village.

“I am very happy. It’s very beautiful here,” the Interfax news agency quoted the portly actor as saying. “Beautiful and soulful people live here.”

Among the gifts the star of “Cyrano de Bergerac” — which earned him an Oscar nomination — and “Green Card” received in Mordovia were a pair of felt boots, or valenki, and two kittens for his new Russian home, television reports said.

Saransk, with a population of some 300,000, is about 600 km southeast of Moscow in a snow-covered region known for gulag labor camps.

Mordovia Gov. Vladimir Volkov suggested that Depardieu could select an apartment or a place to build a home in Mordovia, Interfax reported.

To benefit from the Russian tax rate of 13 percent — compared with a proposed 75 percent for those earning more than €1 million ($1.3 million) in France — Depardieu, 64, would have to spend at least six months of the year in Russia.

The tax plan of France’s new Socialist government was struck down by the highest court, but Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac said Sunday that the government is reworking the law so the superrich will still be asked to pay an elevated rate. He said the government is also considering putting the new tax in place for longer than the two years initially imagined.

“I find it a bit pathetic that for tax reasons this man — whom by the way I admire infinitely as an actor — has decided to exile himself,” Cahuzac said.

Depardieu is reportedly selling his historic Paris mansion amid reports of a €50 million price tag. Depardieu also has extensive business interests, including wine estates and three restaurants in the center of Paris.

On Saturday, when he picked up his passport, he met President Vladimir Putin at the strongman’s sumptuous Black Sea dacha in the resort town of Sochi.

TV footage showed the pair hugging each other and sharing friendly banter over a meal.

Mordovia on the other hand is famous for its harsh climate and a large number of prison camps, which appeared in the 1930s as part of the gulag system of forced labor camps implemented by Josef Stalin.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of punk band Pussy Riot, is serving her two-year prison sentence in Mordovia, after she and her band mates performed an anti-Putin song in a church last year.

On Sunday, a French journalists’ union called on Depardieu to press his “friend” Putin to shed light on the deaths of more than 20 journalists in Russia in recent years. “Since you are the friend of the president of this great democracy, the SNJ-CGT would be grateful if you could ask him about the actual progress of investigations into the killing of journalists,” the union said in an open letter to the actor.

It also asked him to ask Putin “why the television channels are entirely under his thumb, why some of our counterparts are in jail and why news websites are regularly harassed whenever they publish reports that bother your friend and his entourage.”

Depardieu had gushed in a letter published Thursday that Russia was a “great democracy.”

The actor has been a huge star in Russia since the Soviet era and still enjoys cult status among many movie buffs.

Pachyderm protest

Lyon France AFP-JIJI

Around 200 people formed a human chain in a French zoo on Sunday to call for a reprieve for two ailing elephants whose death sentence has led Brigitte Bardot to threaten to go into exile in Russia.

“Justice for the elephants,” chanted the crowd as they surrounded the cage in which Baby and Nepal live in the Tete d’Or zoo in Lyon.

The two elephants face being put down because they have been diagnosed with tuberculosis and are deemed a threat to the health of other animals and visitors to the zoo.

Authorities in the central city ordered the elephants be put to sleep last month, prompting an outcry that resulted in them being granted a temporary reprieve over Christmas.

Bardot, a cinema legend and veteran animal rights campaigner, said on Friday that she would leave France if the reprieve for the elephants was not made permanent, emulating actor Gerard Depardieu’s move into tax exile in Russia.