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Russia's Christmas gift to Paris raises eyebrows

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Russia's Christmas gift to Paris raises eyebrows
From Russia...with love? Paris's diplomatic relations with Moscow have been strained by the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine. Photo: Pierre Verdy/AFP
14:19 CET+01:00
Cash-strapped Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has been handed a gigantic Christmas tree as a gift by an unlikely benefactor: Russia. But questions are being asked whether there is an ulterior motive behind the Christmas present.

What started off as a call by the rector of Paris’s emblematic cathedral to raise money for their traditional Christmas tree looks like turning into the latest diplomatic wrangle between France and Russia.

“This year, for the first time in the history of Paris, the Christmas tree has come from Russia,” Russia's ambassador to France Alexandre Orlov proudly announced after his country paid a whopping €80,000 to have the mammoth pine tree transported across Europe to the French capital.

"The tree is a message of peace", he said.

A rather surprising gesture perhaps, considering that Russia has reportedly just warned France of the "serious" consequences it faces after French President François Hollande on Tuesday delayed indefinitely the delivery of a high-tech warship to the Eastern superpower over the Ukraine crisis.

French politicians are also wary of Russian intentions after it recently emerged that Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank loaned France’s controversial far-right Front National (FN) €9 million to beef up their war chest ahead of local elections.

Orlov, who invited Paris-based Russian journalists to the unveiling of the tree, is suspected of offering the tree more as a publicity stunt than a gift, especially given the nature of his speech.

"We want to show by this gesture, that despite the efforts to isolate Russia, the friendship between our two countries is so strong and deep that no politics can destroy," he told onlookers.

Over in Russia the media took a slightly different angle.

"This year Parisians don't have enough money to pay for their own Christmas tree," said one TV Channel, according to Le Figaro.

A rather surprising gesture perhaps, considering that Russia has reportedly just warned France of the "serious" consequences it faces after French President François Hollande on Tuesday delayed indefinitely the delivery of a high-tech warship to the Eastern superpower over the Ukraine crisis.

French politicians are also wary of Russian intentions after it recently emerged that Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank loaned France’s controversial far-right Front National (FN) €9 million to beef up their war chest ahead of local elections.

While some view the gesture with suspicion at least Notre Dame’s clergy can rest assured their archbishop, Monseigneur Patrick Jacquin, is unlikely to have a made a secret pact with Russia.

“Our church has no money,” he told Le Parisien after the €30,000 his devotees offered up didn’t prove enough to purchase the prized Christmas tree.

When he called for donations from abroad, the Russian embassy was the first to pitch up.

In order to avoid any potential controversy, the Paris-based daily reported that Jacquin called the Ukranian embassy to forewarn them of the tree’s arrival and who it was from.

“I wasn’t expecting all this nitpicking from the press,” he said. 

But nevertheless some remain uneasy.

"It's really bizarre. Behind all this there may be a hidden motive," one member of the Paris public Blanche Copleutre told Le Parisien.

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