For anybody who has overdue Christmas thank yous left on their to-do list, Gerard Depardieu’s open-letter to President Vladimir Putin, written after the French actor was granted Russian citizenship, might provide a useful blueprint. It hits a level of effusiveness that will be tough to match in 2013. “I love Russia”, says Depardieu - the man who embodies France to millions worldwide - “its people, its history, its writers.” Just about any gift giver who received a letter so flowery in return would be pleased (“I love your culture, your intelligence" Depardieu purrs) but we can assume that thank yous like this – shared over the internet - go down especially well with men like Putin: leaders of image-conscious and widely held repressive regimes.
The Russian President himself has stage-managed Depardieu’s arrival. Footage of the pair's meeting in a Black Sea resort was broadcast Saturday on state television (complete with a mismatched bear-hug), shortly before a passport winged its way into Depardieu’s hands. Altogether, the French star’s transfer is something of a coup. While Putin’s popularity has plummeted since re-election as President, Depardieu is well-liked - both the man who will play Rasputin in a forthcoming film, and a face cheery enough to promote a local brand of ketchup.
Of course the actual reason Depardieu has left France isn’t, as his letter suggests, a latent passion for Putin, Dostoevsky and nights by the samovar. The actor has been involved in a public spat with President Hollande’s Socialist government, most explosively over their attempt to introduce a 75 per cent income tax on those who earn over 1 million euros. “Shabby and unpatriotic” was the French Prime Minister’s description of Depardieu’s self-imposed tax exile – “spitting on success” was how the actor labelled President Hollande’s tax proposals in return. So far, so entertainingly Gallic.
There's nothing wrong with tax exile per se, to my mind. The social disadvantages that come with it fugitives must be prepared to accept. What is important, however, is the manner of leaving. Grandstanding does nobody any favour, nor obfuscation (many F1 fans lost patience with Lewis Hamilton the moment he claimed his 2008 move to Switzerland was to stay out of the public eye, not shave millions off his tax bill).
But Depardieu's case is more politically troublesome than most. There are good reasons to protest Hollande’s soaking of the rich, a policy many believe will harm France’s economy and its poorest long-term. There are also many countries that will welcome French tax exiles (us included – Boris Johnson has offered the clammy hand of friendship to businesses scared off by France’s tax collectors). But in presenting himself as a rent-a-friend for Putin, Depardieu has – whether he believes it or not – turned himself into a political pawn. The Pussy Riot case removed a great deal of 'Hollywood' glitz from the Kremlin; Depardieu's professed love of Russian culture glosses over this and many other alleged abuses. It may save him thousands of Euros, but in the long run the cost is arguably higher.