By Marcin Rey
Philippe de Villiers is a businessman, a far-right politician, and a Member of European Parliament known for his support of France leaving the EU. De Villiers shares the far right of the country’s political stage with Marine Le Pen’s Front National, now both competing and 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’ 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 the 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, 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 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 Yedinaya Rossiya, Putin’s own party.
Barnes Russia is also developing land in a southern area of the Moscow metropolitan area known as New Moscow (marked in grey on the map) and only incorporated into 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 anti-corruption 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 dollars, is to be erected using Puy du Fou’s stage technology and in cooperation with the oligarch Konstantin Malofeev.
In an interview on local radio (10:00) in Chekhov, also involving the town’s Mayor, Mr Orlov, Guillaume de Villiers spoke about the project and about his fondness for Russia as an opposite of the decadent West, and he 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 several French household-name companies that were able to use his excellent relationships with the authorities, something no serious business can neglect.
The de Villiers’ top local partner is the same Konstantin Malofeev who is to be involved in building the new theme park. This oligarch’s estate is estimated at billions 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 the 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 “Russian capitalism.”
Konstantin Malofeev shows off his Eastern Orthodox confession and his close ties with the church hierarchy, to which 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 “New Rasputin” because he has the ear of Vladimir Putin. 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) 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. 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 certainly Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov. 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 Girkin is also implicated in a 1993 massacre in the Bosnian town of Visegrád which was comparable to the infamous slaughter in Srebrenica.
The de Villiers veritably threw themselves at the opportunity presented by the occupation of Crimea. Already on 25 April, Guillaume de Villiers and Barnes CEO Thibault de Saint Vincent visited the peninsula to meet Putin’s newly installed Governor Sergey Aksyonov, an individual with a serious criminal record (which continues).
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 only spoke to Vice-Presidents, no doubt an honour, but not to Putin in person.
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 also have let himself be seen with Mrs le Pen who was, after all, a far more important figure on the French stage. He also would have hosted meetings with Britain’s Nigel Farage, with Gabor Vona of the Hungarian Jobbik party, or with other volunteers of 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 dollars, which is 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 dollars 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 to have been appointed the French Army’s Chief of Staff in February 2014.
The Russian regime is known to work consistently to weave a web of dependence around western decision makers in order to influence them. Among numerous such cases, clearly the most striking was former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Schroeder famously negotiated the construction of a strategic North Stream gas pipeline bypassing the Ukraine (or Belarus) and Poland to connect Russia directly with Germany. Within months of his stepping down from chancellorship, Gerhard Schroeder was rewarded with a lavishly paid post with 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 weighs in on arms export policies. This autumn, the French Cross-Ministerial Committee on Defence Export Control (CIEEMG) is scheduled to review, among other issues, 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 pressure. One could even imagine that deep down General 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 in this regime.
Causing a businessman’s downfall and confiscation of his assets by the authorities is a matter of daily practice in Russia. Indeed, this is how Putin locked up Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of the Yukos oil company who also revealed political ambitions and backed democratisation, for ten years. Khodorkovsky 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 suspend the delivery of the Mistral assault ships to Russia. They could easily be used to attack the Ukrainian port city of Odesa or the Georgian Black Sea coast using Russia’s Crimean naval base in Sevastopol; or 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.
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 euros vs. 1.2 bn euros) 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. 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.
French foreign policy must change. Building the country’s international position, even when it is done on the grounds of poorly-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 Human Rights.’
I have lost all hope in the sense of decency among 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, Jacques Chirac, French president at the time, 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.By: Marcin Rey