The sun-soaked city of Nice is known around the world for its famous seaside walkway, the “Promenade des Anglais”. But over the past century, it has been more of a promenade for Russian tycoons and émigrés.
Its conservative mayor, Christian Estrosi, is an outspoken advocate of close ties with Russia. This week, he travelled to Moscow to promote Russian investment in the French Riviera. As proof of his fondness for President Vladimir Putin’s country, he even posted several tweets in Cyrillic.
At a time of escalating tension between Moscow and the West, Estrosi's visit inevitably took a highly political tone. True to form, the former motorcycle champion did his best to politicize it.
In an interview with FRANCE 24’s sister radio station RFI, he railed against European sanctions imposed on Moscow over the Ukrainian crisis. He also slammed France’s decision to suspend the controversial delivery of warships to the Russian navy. “Russia is not at war with France, Russia is not at war with Europe,” he said.
President François Hollande announced this summer that France was suspending delivery of two Mistral-class warships due to Russia’s behaviour in the Ukrainian crisis. A former industry minister during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, Estrosi says the government is “blackmailing Russia” over the deal.
He is not the only Russophile on the French political right to have slammed Hollande’s move. François Fillon, Sarkozy’s former prime minister, has accused France’s Socialist government of “jumping on the American bandwagon”.
Both men have also warned that the French economy stands to lose most from the fallout with Russia. “Russia had chosen French industry and technology, thereby saving hundreds of jobs at a critical time for the economy,” Estrosi told RFI on Thursday, referring to the Mistral deal.
The controversial helicopter carriers are being built in Saint-Nazaire, on France’s Atlantic coast. But Estrosi knows his own city is particularly exposed to Russian retaliation.
The Mediterranean city of Nice, once part of Italy, has long been a favourite holiday destination for the Russian elite. Tsar Nicholas II liked it so much he helped build an Orthodox cathedral there, which is still the largest in Western Europe.
After the October Revolution in 1917, many fleeing Russian émigrés found a new home in sunny Nice – among them, the future author Romain Gary.
At the end of the last century, following the collapse of the USSR, a new wave of nouveaux riches flocked to the French Riviera.
According to local daily Nice Matin, the city and surrounding areas are now home to a quarter of France’s 80,000-strong Russian resident population.
Aeroflot offers daily flights between Nice and Moscow, and many more Russians make frequent trips to the French Riviera, without actually living there.
Estrosi, a key Sarkozy ally who is known for his hard-line stance on immigration, is keen to expand these lucrative ties. He has also sought to expand cultural exchange, launching a brand-new Russian Film Festival in 2013, accompanied by another notorious Russia-lover, Gérard Depardieu.
His trip to Moscow featured a host of meetings with business leaders, politicians and students. He lobbied Russian officials to open a consulate in Nice, which he described as “France’ first Russian city” in front of an audience of business graduates and investors. On behalf of the Nice film archive, he picked up copies of rare films on the Normandie-Niemen Brigade, the only French unit to have fought with the Soviets during World War II.
Estrosi also met with Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, as well as the head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov. Following the latter meeting, he tweeted that “both of us regret the lack of dialogue between France and Russia”.
In his interview with RFI, Estrosi said France and the EU had been reckless in their approach to the Ukrainian crisis, stoking the deep divisions that are now tearing the country apart. He said “Europe should not have pushed for a free-trade deal with Ukraine” when it knew this would affect the country’s “historic ties” with Russia.
Sarkozy knew best
Céline Bayou, a Russia expert for French-language news website P@ges Europe, says there is little doubt Europe made a number of mistakes over Ukraine. “The EU has long been ambiguous in its dealings with Kiev and Moscow, particularly on the issue of Ukrainian membership of the EU,” she told FRANCE 24. “This has effectively led Ukraine down a dead end, and estranged Russia.”
But Bayou was sceptical of Estrosi’s claim that his former boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, had established “extremely constructive relations with Russia”.
The mayor of Nice had earlier pointed to the 2008 Russo-Georgian war as an example of Sarkozy’s successful dialogue with Moscow. Estrosi said the former French president had secured a peace deal between the belligerents “in just 24 hours”.
“Sarkozy was certainly very active at the time, but the deal he brokered was never implemented,” Bayou countered. “In fact no French president has established a productive partnership with Russia’s Putin since the days of Jacques Chirac.”
Date created : 2014-11-13