A stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower and Paris’s famed Alexandre III bridge, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is putting his mark on the French capital.
Construction of a new Russian Orthodox church with five golden domes in central Paris gets under way in the next few weeks, with U.S. and European efforts to slam Putin’s Russia for its incursions into Ukraine doing little to halt its progress. The yet-to-be-named church is being built on a plot of land sold in 2010 to Russia by the French state for 73 million euros ($99 million). The deal was sealed by Former President Nicolas Sarkozy. His successor Francois Hollande’s government says it’s “determined” to see the monument erected.
While less controversial than France’s decision to go ahead with the sale of two warships to the former Cold War foe at the risk of displeasing the U.S. and other allies, the church’s construction is yet another indication of France’s complicated relationship with Russia. France, which is struggling to rebound from two years with barely any growth and record joblessness, needs business from Russia. France’s exports to Russia have risen fourfold since 2000 to 7 billion euros last year.
“The deal is done, Russia is the owner of that land,” Eric Woerth, who was Sarkozy’s budget minister and signed the deal in March 2010, said in a telephone interview. “It’s not in France’s interest to mess up things with Russia; nor with the U.S., for that matter. Yes, it’s a fine line.”
As the crisis in Ukraine escalated -- resulting in Russia’s annexation of Crimea -- the French lowered the profile of the project that will raise Russian Orthodox crosses as high as 117 feet in the Paris sky. A spring ceremony to lay the first stone in the presence of Putin was quietly canceled, an official in Hollande’s office said.
France has annoyed the U.S. and other allies by deciding not to suspend the delivery of the two helicopter-carrier Mistral warships to the Russian Navy, whose members arrive on France’s Atlantic shores this month for their first training.
“It would have been preferable to press the pause button,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in Brussels on June 5, ahead of a visit to France for D-Day celebrations, criticizing the country for “continuing significant defense deals with Russia at a time when they have violated basic international law and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of their neighbors.”
In a smaller way, the French are defying allies again with the church.
The Paris cathedral, which is being built by the renowned French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, shows the Russian state’s hand behind the mounting influence in France of the country’s Orthodox church, called the Moscow Patriarchate.
“Orders are coming from the Russian Federation,” Borina Andrieu, the spokeswoman for Wilmotte, said in a telephone interview. “The Patriarchate is also naturally looking closely at the cathedral project.”
The purchase of the Paris property was signed by former President Dmitry Medvedev. Now, Putin is pushing the project. He has mentioned the cathedral at every meeting with Hollande.
The Paris project follows Russia’s 2010 acquisition of the Orthodox cathedral in the coastal city of Nice, built in 1903 on the orders of Czar Nicholas II.
The Riviera’s onion-domed Cathedral of St. Nicholas, the largest Russian church outside the country, and its contents -- including hundreds of religious icons -- now belong to the Russian Federation.
Czar to Putin
The new 5,400 square-feet Paris cathedral will be built “in an exposed neighborhood of Paris,” near the banks of the Seine River and on a site that’s on UNESCO’s heritage list, Andrieu said.
“Everything has been done to integrate” the church’s buildings -- which will also house a school and a cultural center -- with Paris’s style, she added. The Russian Cultural and Spiritual Center, the project’s official name, will spread into four buildings over more than 50,000 square feet.
Wilmotte plans to use the same white limestone called “pierre de Bourgogne” that’s used for most of the constructions in the City of Light. The cathedral and the complex’s three other buildings will mix glass and stone.
Wilmotte’s representative declined to provide the project’s price tag. Its contractor, Bouygues Construction SA, declined to comment on the project.
The golden domes of the church will be visible from the Eiffel Tower and from the Pont Alexandre III, the monumental beau-arts style bridge completed in 1900 and named after the czar who had concluded the Franco-Russian alliance in 1892.
“Russia under Putin sees itself as a continuity of the Czarist era and this cathedral is another sign of it,” said Philippe Migault, a researcher specializing in Russia at IRIS, the Paris-based Strategic and International Relations Institute. “Russia under the czars gave France many signs of friendship, like a bridge and a church. Putin is reviving that tradition and culture, in a post-Communist revival.”