The de Villiers’, the French Chief of Staff and the Mistral Deal

Sep 2nd, 2014 | By | Category: France, In Depth, National Security, Politics, Russia

HOW PUTIN INFLUENCES FRENCH POLICY

Philippe de Villiers, the French far-right politician, made headlines when he met with Vladimir Putin at Kremlin on 14 August. Is it just a coincidence that Philippe’s brother, Pierre de Villiers, is Chief of Staff of the French Army, or is the Russian regime up to its old tricks corrupting top western decision makers? Whichever is true, the fact is that France remains attached to its policy of arming Russia, recently with two Mistral-class helicopter carriers, while denying support to the Ukraine.

Philippe de Villiers is a businessman, a far-right politician and a Member of European Parliament known for his support to France’s leaving the EU. De Villiers shares the far right of the country’s political stage with Marine Le Pen’s Front National, now competing now collaborating together, and is infamous for supporting Putin’s regime. The man has established his position and accumulated wealth in his home province of Vendée by building and operating Puy du Fou, a theme park that stages historical re-enactments of a distorted version of the Vendée’s rebellion against the French Revolution.

De Villiers’s company has recently taken steps to build two new theme parks, modelled on Puy du Fou, near Moscow and in Crimea. The idea is to present a version of Russian history that is compatible with Kremlin’s historical policy. It is not hard to imagine how Poland would be portrayed in these shows.

The de Villiers’ have been present in Russia for more than ten years. Barnes is an international real estate group with offices in Switzerland, France, the USA, China, the UK and, most importantly, in Russia. The company is headed by a certain Thibault de Saint Vincent, but its Moscow branch, Barnes Russia(1), is managed by Guillaume de Villiers, Philippe’s son, known for his involvement in a sex scandal widely reported in France.

Barnes Russia focuses on selling and renting out luxury property in the French Riviera and on the Lake Geneva to Russian oligarchs and top officials. It is claimed that some of the company’s clients belong to Putin’s innermost circle, a few dozen people who build the core of his system. Barnes’ Moscow offices are located in the same building as the elections’ committee of United Russia, Putin’s own party.

Barnes Russia is also developing land in a southern area of the Moscow metropolitan area known as the New Moscow (marked grey on the map) and only incorporated in the city boundaries a few years ago. This is a residential area for the richest. It offers special tax breaks, but to take advantage of them one must be particularly well informed and connected. Recently, an anticorruption activist group attempted to stage a picket at the gates of an enclosed project for the privileged. The security guards responded with shots using live ammunition, but no casualties have been reported.

Just to the south of this area, in a town called Chekhov (Чехов), a theme park “Tsarogrod”, estimated at 500 million euro(2), is to be erected using Puy du Fou’s stage technology and in cooperation with the oligarch Konstantin Malofeev.

In an interview on the local radio(3) in Chekhov, involving also the town’s Mayor, Mr Orlov, Guillaume de Villiers spoke about the project, about his fondness of Russia as an opposite of the decadent west, and reminisced about his business relationships, including a walk he took across Moscow with the CEO of Gaz de France Suez. There are reliable accounts of Guillaume de Villiers’ important role in bringing into Russia of several French household name companies that were able to use his excellent relationships with the authorities, as something no serious business can neglect.

The de Villiers’ top local partner is the same Konstantin Malofeev(4) who is to be involved in building the new theme park. This oligarch estate is estimated at millions of dollars. He is an important shareholder of Rostelecom, a telecom operator, and controls numerous web portals and social media services, which means that he is also doing the censorship work on them on Kremlin’s behalf. Malofeev has been implicated in several cases of fraud and even in buying votes to the Russian senate (Council of the Russian Federation), but has never been convicted. His methods are typical for the “Russian capitalism”

Konstantin Malofeev shows off his Eastern Orthodox confession and his close ties with the church hierarchy where he is a confidante for business matters. The founder of The Saint Basil the Great Charitable Foundation, Malofeev has earned from the press the nickname of a “New Rasputin” due to his having the ear of Vladimir Putin’s. In May, the businessman organised and funded a somewhat secretive Congress of European Nationalists and Antimodernists in Vienna. I have not been able to confirm whether de Villiers was present, but a former French MP for the Front National, Marion-Maréchal Le Pen (Marine Le Pen’s niece)(5) was.

Malofeev has been financing terrorists in the Ukrainian Donbas region. This has earned him a place on a list of a select group of approximately one hundred people targeted by EU sanctions(6). This group constitutes the regime’s elite and Malofeev is part of it.

The Russian equivalent of the Puy du Fou theme park is bound to tap into a multitude of Russian historical re-enactment groups for its shows and a leading figure of this movement is the certain Igor Girkin(7), aka Strielkov. Girkin is an officer of the Russian military intelligence GRU and a leader of the Russian separatists in the Donbas region. He is known to have held positions with Malofeev’s company Marshall Capital before departing for Donbas, where he has been enjoying financial support of his patron. The same man Girkin is also implicated in a massacre at Bosnian town of Visegrád, in 1993, which was comparable to the infamous slaughter in Srebrenica.

The de Villiers’ veritably threw themselves at the opportunity posed by the occupation of Crimea. Already on 25 April, Guillaume de Villiers and Barnes CEO Thibaut de Saint Vincent visited the peninsula(8) to meet Putin’s newly installed Governor Sergey Aksyonov(9), an individual with serious criminal record (which continues)(10).

Then, on 14 August, Philippe de Villiers met Vladimir Putin personally at the Tsar’s Palace in Yalta. The two men discussed the construction of a new historical entertainment park in Crimea. This meeting is truly unprecedented. Not even Marine le Pen enjoyed the privilege during her working meeting at the Kremlin in June 2013. She was only spoke to Vice-Presidents, no doubt an honour, but no to Putin in person(11).

Why would Putin value Philippe de Villiers so much? To be sure, the Russian propaganda squeezed all it could out of de Villiers’ visit. It portrayed him as a top French politician and a representative of French business circles who had come to assure “the French Nation’s support to Russia”. Yet if only the internal propaganda had been the point, Putin would have had also let himself be seen with Mrs le Pen who, after all, was a far more important figure on the French stage. He would have also hosted meetings with Britain’s Nigel Farage, with Gabor Vona of the Hungarian Jobbik party or with other volunteers of a European support for Russia. But no, de Villiers was the sole such case.

The cost of the Tsarogrod theme park near Moscow is estimated at 500 million euros, which is a no mean sum. Let us even assume that the Crimean venture would be in a similar order of magnitude. Still, on a scale of Putin’s operations even a billion euros would not necessarily warrant a personal meeting. That is not the kind of amount that Malofeev would have trouble handling on his own. The few business people Putin has graced with a one-on-one tended to be in the category of Siemens CEO. Not quite de Villiers’ league yet.

But then there is Philippe’s brother, general Pierre de Villiers, who happens have been appointed the French Army’s Chief of Staff in February 2014.

The Russian regime is known to consistently work to weave a web of dependence around western decision makers in order to influence them. Among the numerous such cases clearly the most striking was the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Schroeder famously negotiated the construction of a strategic North Stream gas pipeline bypassed the Ukraine (or Belarus) and Poland to connect directly Russia with Germany. Within months of his stepping down from chancellorship, Gerhard Schroeder was rewarded with a lavishly paid post with the Gazprom’s international subsidiary responsible for building and operating the pipe.

General Pierre de Villiers is at the helm of the French Army, the largest NATO service in Europe. He takes part in strategic decision making involved in the Ukrainian crisis and the western response to it. His opinion weights in on arms export policies. This autumn, the French Cross-Ministerial Committee on Defence Export Control (CIEEMG) is scheduled review, among others, the controversial sale of the Mistral-class assault ships currently under construction for the Russian Navy at Saint Nazaire. The decision will be a follow-up to a political decision expected at a September NATO summit in the Welsh town of Newport.

There is no reason to doubt General de Villiers’ honesty, or to accuse him of caving in to pressures. One could even imagine that deep down Gen. de Villiers may be against his brother’s adventures in Russia.

However, one can and as a matter of fact should imagine that what Putin is after is to try and blackmail General de Villiers. If his decisions were to be incompatible with Russia’s expectations then Putin would see to it that the de Villiers’ business in Russia suffers. This would be very much normal practice of this regime.

Causing a businessman’s downfall and his assets taken away by the authorities is a matter of daily practice in Russia. Indeed, this is how Putin locked up for ten years Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of the Yukos oil company who also revealed political ambitions and backed democratisation. The man was only released earlier this year and immediately sought refuge in London.

Clearly, there is a conflict of interest and the General owes it to the public to explain his position on this potentially disgraceful matter. It is a matter of honour for France and its reputation as a member of the free world.

France’s honour also demands that it suspends the delivery of the Mistral assault ships to Russia. They could easily be used to attack the Ukrainian port city of Odessa or the Georgian Black Sea coast using Russia’s Crimean naval base in Sevastopol; of the Polish coast from the Baltic Sea base at Kaliningrad; or even Korea from Vladivostok on the Pacific. The international ‘No Mistrals For Putin’ campaign, coordinated from France, is advocating a sale of the ships to the European Union or NATO to avoid France suffering the full brunt of the aborted deal(12).

On the other side, in Poland there are defence deals on the table estimated at ten times the value of the Mistral project (11.3 bn euro vs. 1,2 bn euro)(13) and for which French contractors are bidding. Voices have already been heard in the Polish press that the French bidders should be excluded from any Polish defence procurement in view of the French policy on the Mistrals for Russia(14). This response has even reached the potential French involvement in building Poland’s future nuclear energy sector. The argument is that a strategy to reduce Poland’s energy dependence on Russia (oil and gas) should not include purchasing technologies from a country that is practically supporting Russia.

The French foreign policy must change. Building the country’s international position, even when it is done on the grounds of ill-understood anti-Americanism, should not justify sabotaging European and the world’s defensive response to a threat posed by the revisionist Russian dictatorship, let alone arming it. This is a disgrace to a country that regards itself as the ‘Motherland of the Human Rights’.

I have lost all hope in the sense of decency among the French decision makers. Instead, pressure must be exerted on France. Poland may not be a powerful country, but it constitutes an important market for French contractors. ‘He who pays the piper…’ Indeed, France should be threatened that unless it changes its attitude it will be prohibited from bidding on Polish government procurement tenders, defence and or otherwise. I urge the authorities of the Republic of Poland and every Polish politician from all allegiances who understands raison d’état. The same applies to all potentially frontline countries, from Finland to Romania.

Indeed, when, in 2003, France was trying to sell its multirole fighters to Poland the then French President Jacques Chirac threatened that if the European (read: French) offer were to be rejected France would pile up obstacles to Poland’s accession to the European Union. I see no reason why we should not engage in a little tit-for-tat now.

Marcin Rey

PDF version: http://tinyurl.com/EN-deVilliersPutinMistral

Links & references:

1) Barnes Russia Management Board: http://tinyurl.com/BarnesRussieDirection
2) An article summarising basics on the planned historic theme park near Moscow:http://tinyurl.com/deVilliersRFE
3) The interview of Guillaume de Villiers on a local radio from the town where the park is to be located. Guillaume de Villiers speaks English starting from the tenth minute 4) of the recording: http://tinyurl.com/GDeVilliersRadioCzechow
4) Konstantin Malofeev’s personal profile in English (abridged):http://tinyurl.com/Malofeev and in Russian (full): http://tinyurl.com/MalofeevRU
5) On the Malofeev-funded nationalist congress in Vienna:http://tinyurl.com/nationalistAssemblyVienna
6) Summary of individuals personally targeted by EU sanctions:http://tinyurl.com/listePersonnesSanctionnees
7) An article on Girkin and his role in Bosnia: http://tinyurl.com/GirkinStrielkov
8) Guillaume de Villiers in Crimea on 25 April: http://tinyurl.com/GdeVilliersEnCrimee
9) Sergey Aksyonov’s profile: http://tinyurl.com/AksyonovWiki
10) Article on S. Aksyonov’s past: http://tinyurl.com/AksyonovMurkyPast
11) Article from a Russian opposition web service on links connecting the European extreme-right with Putin’s regime: http://tinyurl.com/PutinFarRightFriendsInEurope
12) Facebook page of the campaign against selling Mistral ships to Russia:https://www.facebook.com/NoMistralsForPutin
13) Summary of Polish government defence procurements where French companies are bidding: http://tinyurl.com/MistralMiscalculation
14) “France, the Arsenal of Tyranny” http://tinyurl.com/FrancjaArsenalTyranii

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