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FRANCE AND RUSSIA

RUSSIA

Russia’s Christmas gift to Paris raises eyebrows

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.

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

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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UKRAINE

France announces seizure of Russian oligarch’s €108m yacht

Just days after the announcement that the French finance ministry was drawing up a list of assets owned by sanctioned Russian oligarchs for seizure comes the first action - a yacht has been impounded in a harbour on France's Mediterranean coast.

France announces seizure of Russian oligarch's €108m yacht

French customs officials announced on Thursday that they had impounded the yacht Amore Vero, owned by sanctioned billionaire Igor Sechin.

The official announcement said: “During the night of March 2nd to 3rd, French customs officers seized the yacht Amore Vero at the shipyard in La Ciotat, after an inspection lasting several hours.

“Owned by a company in which Igor Sechin, head of the Rosneft company, has been identified as the main shareholder, this yacht fell within the scope of the freezing measures decided against its owner by the European Council.

“These measures, which apply immediately, require the detention of the vessel.”

READ ALSO Côte d’Azur mansions, yachts, private jets: What is France likely to seize from Russian oligarchs?

The 86m-long super-yacht, built in 2013, has an estimated value of €108m – and annual running costs of €10m. 

It was moored in the harbour of La Ciotat, between Marseille and Toulon on France’s Mediterranean coast. According to customs officers, it had arrived there in January and was undergoing repairs, but crew were “making arrangements to leave in a hurry, without having completed the planned work”.

The seizure is likely to be the first of many, as the French finance ministry has created a taskforce of customs officers and tax inspectors to identify and seize assets owned by Russian oligarchs who are under EU sanctions.

It comes after officials in the German port of Hamburg also seized a yacht belonging to a Russian billionaire on Thursday.

Finance minster Bruno Le Maire said: “We thank the French Customs for this seizure carried out as part of the implementation of the European Union sanctions against Russia.”

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