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French actor Depardieu in Russia after getting citizenship

Gerard Depardieu during a photocall for the new Asterix film in Berlin on October 1, 2012
French actor Gerard Depardieu pictured during a photocall for the new Asterix film "Au service de Sa Majesté" (God Save Britannia) in Berlin on October 1, 2012. Depardieu arrived in Russia on Saturday to meet with President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin sai

French actor Gerard Depardieu arrived in Russia on Saturday to meet with President Vladimir Putin after getting Russian citizenship to avoid paying higher taxes in France.

"Mr. Depardieu arrived in Sochi as part of a private visit. We expect him to meet Vladimir Putin tonight," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told AFP, adding that it was possible that Depardieu, 64, would receive his new passport during the meeting.

Putin on Thursday granted Depardieu citizenship, following the announcement by the disgruntled French movie star that he intended to quit his home country to avoid paying a new millionaires' tax.

The Kremlin's move -- and subsequent comments by Depardieu professing his love for Putin and calling Russia "a great democracy" -- sparked amusement, disbelief and a heavy dose of irony inside Russia.

"He is impressed by our democracy -- he has completely lost his marbles," wrote one Facebook user, Vladimir Sokolov.

Russia's move to grant citizenship to the star of Cyrano de Bergerac, Green Card and the Asterix and Obelix series was the latest volley in a highly publicised row between the actor and the French government over its attempt to raise the tax rate on earnings of more than one million euros ($1.3 million) to 75 percent.

When Depardieu first announced he would leave the country to avoid the tax, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault branded the move "pathetic".

People pass an advert for a Russian bank called Sovetsky showing Gerard Depardieu, in St Petersburg on January 4, 2013
People pass by an advertisement for a small Russian bank called Sovetsky (The Soviet) showing Gerard Depardieu holding fruit, as they enter a spectacles shop in Saint Petersburg on January 4, 2013.

Depardieu, who can easily earn up to two million euros per film and who has extensive business interests in France and elsewhere, will qualify for the 13 percent tax rate if he spends at least six months of the year in Russia.

The annual tax rate will go up to 30 percent on all income made locally and in other countries if he spends more than half the year abroad.

The hulking actor has been a huge star in Russia since the Soviet era and still enjoys cult status among many movie buffs.

France was seen by the USSR as one of Europe's friendlier countries with natural socialist leanings -- a status that made its movies a staple of Soviet silver screens.

Depardieu has since grown into a frequent jury member of the glitzy Moscow and Sochi film festivals.

His straw hair and rugged features have even featured in local television advertisements for products including kitchen furniture and ketchup.

The charismatic Frenchman was most recently granted the honour of being personally asked to emigrate to Russia by the iron-fisted leader of Chechnya, the scene of two post-Soviet wars that killed tens of thousands.

Depardieu this year made a peculiar visit to Chechnya to attend the birthday of Ramzan Kadyrov, a ruler accused of torture and other violent crimes by international rights groups.

A video of that celebration showed Depardieu at one stage shouting in Russian: "Glory to Grozny! Glory to Chechnya! Glory to Kadyrov!"

Earlier during his tax row, Depardieu had mentioned moving to Belgium -- where millionaires pay a 50 percent tax -- and has purchased a new home there near the French border for the specific purpose of avoiding the higher French rate.

In the latest, bizarre twist to the saga, fellow French cinema legend-turned animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot on Friday threatened to also apply for Russian citizenship unless two elephants under threat of being put down were granted a reprieve.