People pass by an advertisement poster of a small Russian bank showing Gerard Depardieu. Russians reacted with amusement, disbelief and a heavy dose of irony to the news that the Kremlin has granted citizenship to French actor Gerard Depardieu to solve his tax woes. Photo: Olga Maltseva
It's as if Paul Newman and Jane Fonda had fled the United States in protest at something or other - they were always protesting - and sought Russian citizenship instead. Americans would be surprised, but would they really care? It's a free country, as they say.
Whereas the French are quite cross about the decision of Oscar-winning actor Gerard Depardieu, who received Russian citizenship at the hands of President Vladimir Putin personally last Saturday. A taxi driver in Paris went on at me about it for the whole ride this week. After 42 years of starring in French films, Depardieu had acquired the status of ''national treasure'' in the eyes of the public, but he clearly does not reciprocate their loyalty and pride.
And hard on the heels of Depardieu's defection comes the news that actress Brigitte Bardot, France's leading sex symbol for the generation who are now drawing their pensions, is also threatening to give up her French citizenship and go Russian.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets French actor Gerard Depardieu.
Depardieu, whom director Marguerite Duras described as ''a big, beautiful runaway truck of a man'', is much larger than life - about the size of a baby whale, in fact. He is over the top in every sense: 180 films and TV credits, 17 motorbike accidents, five or six bottles of wine a day by his own reckoning.
He reckons he has paid €145 million ($A180 million) in taxes since he started work at 14, and he doesn't want to pay any more. France's Socialist government is bringing in a 75 per cent tax rate for people earning more than €1 million a year, so Depardieu is leaving.
Initially he was just moving to Belgium, to a village 800 metres from the French border that already hosts several super-rich tax exiles, but then French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said his decision was ''shabby and unpatriotic''. At this point, the truck ran away again. Belgium was no longer far enough.
Gerard Depardieu shows his passport.
When the outraged actor declared he would ask for Russian citizenship, Putin (who knows how to play to the gallery) announced he could have it at once. By the weekend it was a done deal.
''I adore your country, Russia, your people, your history, your writers …'' the actor burbled. ''Russia is a country of great democracy.'' It is also a country with a 13 per cent flat tax rate, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin crowed on Twitter: ''In the West, they are not well acquainted with our tax system. When they find out, we can expect a mass migration of rich Europeans into Russia.'' He had barely finished tweeting when another French celebrity said she was thinking of moving to Russia.
It wasn't high taxes that obsessed Brigitte Bardot, though, it was animal rights. She was protesting a court order Friday in Lyon ordering that two circus elephants that had been suffering from tuberculosis since 2010 be put down. ''If those in power are cowardly and impudent enough to kill the elephants,'' she raged, ''then I will ask for Russian nationality to get out of this country which has become nothing more than an animal cemetery.''
Brigitte Bardot threatened to follow Depardieu to Russia unless two elephants under threat of being put down were granted a reprieve.
It's wise, when threatening to flounce off, to make sure first that they really want you to stay, and in BB's case that may not actually be the case. She is better known today not as a sex symbol but as a crazy old lady who believes Muslims are ''destroying our country'' and who has been convicted five times for incitement to racial hatred. Some people (including my cab driver) think the Russians would be welcome to her.
But elephants aside, going Russian opens up a huge new opportunity for avoiding burdensome taxation. All those American millionaires who have been condemned by recent events to live under the rule of that foreign-born Muslim communist, Barack Obama, and pay an appalling 39.6 per cent tax on the portion of their annual earnings that exceeds $US400,000 ($A380,000), have an alternative at last.
They can do exactly what they have been telling anybody who complains about the gulf between the rich and the poor in America to do for decades: go to Russia. The only problem is that they will actually have to live there for six months of the year to qualify for the 13 per cent Russian tax rate.
There is another problem. Some Russians may not welcome them with open arms. Even the arrival of Depardieu, who is famous in Russia for having acted in several high-profile Franco-Russian co-productions and appeared in TV ads there, is being greeted with mixed feelings.
Fellow celebrity Tina Kandelaki, the celebrated host of the celebrity talk show Details, has no reservations about him at all: he can stay in her apartment. ''Let's not divide up Depardieu,'' she tweeted. ''Simply give him to me.'' But a less starry-eyed observer replied: ''Haven't we got enough alcoholics?'' Evidently not.
>> Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.