Gérard Depardieu has a habit of rubbing people up the wrong way. Over Christmas, the French actor is alleged to have thrown water at customers in an Italian restaurant. In 2011 he shocked passengers by urinating in a plastic bottle on a plane bound for Dublin. And human rights activists are nonplussed by his close ties with Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov.
In Belgium’s Estaimpuis municipality, however, he could not be more popular, with his ever-expanding business empire credited with boosting the economy, creating jobs and bringing new visitors to the small corner of Wallonia. Belgian media this week reported that he is establishing an aviation company there, complementing a portfolio which already includes a wine shop and a guest-house. He is also rumoured to be expending into restaurants and property.
“To the community it’s an honour to have such a huge actor in Estaimpuis,” said Léonard Pollet, the political assistant to the Mayor of Estaimpuis.
“It brings people for activities, it also boosts new jobs.” His empire is particularly astonishing, Mr Pollet adds, “as he’s only been here for a year”. When the Asterix & Obelix star first shifted a mile over the border from his native France in late 2012, there were grumbles that he was there only for the favourable taxes.
France’s President François Hollande had vowed to impose a 75 per cent wealth tax and Depardieu would not be the first Frenchman to cosy up to the neighbours for financial gain.
Then he made his first acquisition – Villa White Cloud, a stately bed and breakfast in the village of Néchin. He stays at the 19th-century pile when he is town, but it remains a working hotel with rooms going for €135 a night.
Depardieu further endeared himself to the local community last August when he hosted a lavish house-warming party for the village, complete with suckling pig, karaoke and copious wine.
His next venture was La Cave de Gérard, a wine shop which opened in November in Néchin and sells vino from the vineyards of fellow celebrities such as the actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and the film director Francis Ford Coppola.
Mr Pollet told The Independent that the actor was planning on opening a wine bar in the nearby town of Tournai this year. Property investments and a gourmet restaurant may also be in the works, Belgian media reported: “I am delighted to have on investors like that.” Marie-Christine Marghem, a Tournai urban development official, told L’Echo newspaper: “I think it could revitalise the city.”
The airline business was registered in November and will be based out of Néchin, L’Echo reported. It is called Cyran’R – a nod to one of his most famous roles, Cyrano de Bergerac – and its initial purpose will be to run the actor’s private jet, the paper said.
The actor certainly needs a reliable form of transport, considering how many places he calls home. He is an honorary citizen not just of Néchin, but also Russia, where he hangs out with President Vladimir Putin and stars in the occasional TV show. Explaining his globe-trotting last year, he insisted it had nothing to do with taxes.
“I refuse to be shut in by borders,” he said.
More controversial are visits to see a man he calls his “close friend”. the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been implicated in torture and human rights abuses – all accusations he denies.
Depardieu also has a holiday home in southern Italy, but he may have burned his bridges there: the Ansa news agency reported last week that he was so irked by late-night noise from a restaurant that he shouted at the manager and threw water on the revellers from a window above.