MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin has granted citizenship to Gerard Depardieu, the French movie star whose decision to quit his homeland to avoid a tax hike prompted accusations of national betrayal.
The "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Green Card" actor bought a house across the border in Belgium last year to avoid a new tax rate for millionaires planned by France's Socialist President Francois Hollande, but said he could also seek tax exile elsewhere.
Putin said last month that Depardieu would be welcome in Russia, which has a flat income tax rate of 13 percent, compared to the 75 percent on income over 1 million euros ($1.32 million) that Hollande wants to levy in France.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called Depardieu's decision to seek Belgian residency "pathetic" and unpatriotic at a time when the French are being asked to pay higher taxes to reduce a bloated national debt.
"I am leaving because you believe that success, creation, talent, anything different must be sanctioned," the actor retorted in a letter published by a newspaper, saying he would hand in his passport and social security card.
Depardieu is well known in Russia, where he has appeared in many advertising campaigns. He worked in the country in 2011 on a film about the eccentric Russian monk Grigory Rasputin.
French media teased Depardieu, showing clips of the actor's Russian work that were unknown at home, including the Rasputin film and a commercial for ketchup.
Magazine L'Express put together a slideshow on its website of other countries that he could flee to, suggesting Italy where he has starred in commercials for Barilla pasta, or Japan, given that the actor owns a Japanese food shop in Paris.
Depardieu welcomed the move to grant him Russian citizenship, according to excerpts of a letter published by a Russian state TV website.
"I love your culture, your intelligence," the letter read. "My father was a communist of that era. He listened to Radio Moscow! That is my culture too."
Depardieu's publicist Francois Hassan Guerrar was not immediately available to comment on the letter.
Depardieu was one of several Western celebrities invited to celebrate the birthday of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader, in 2012.
Depardieu, 63, had told friends he was considering three options to escape France's new tax regime: settling in Belgium, relocating to Montenegro, where he has a business, or moving to Russia, French daily Le Monde reported in December.
Putin told a news conference last month: "If Gerard really wants to have either a residency permit in Russia or a Russian passport, we will assume that this matter is settled and settled positively.
"I know that he (Depardieu) considers himself a Frenchman. He loves his country very much, its history its culture - this is his life, and I'm sure he is going through a tough time now," Putin said.
The Kremlin's website said on Thursday that Putin had signed a decree granting Depardieu citizenship. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was not necessary for Depardieu to move to Russia - that would be the actor's decision.
Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Westerners still knew little of Russia's tax regime.
"When they find out, we can expect a mass migration of rich Europeans to Russia," Rogozin, a nationalist politician and former envoy to NATO, said on Twitter.
WELCOME TO RUSSIA
Muscovites said they would welcome Depardieu. "He is a normal guy. He is fond of drinking too, I suppose, the Russian way, so let him come here," said one resident, Lev Nikolaevich.
Putin has in the past spoken of good relations with France, which he visited last June, but he is a frequent critic of the West. He had a tense summit with the European Union last month and wants the bloc to move faster toward visa-free travel.
Since the Cold War, Moscow has often expressed support for Westerners at odds with their governments - a way to counter what Putin says is hypocritical U.S. and European criticism of the Kremlin's treatment of its own citizens.
In 2010, a Kremlin official suggested Wikileaks founder Julian Assange should be nominated for a Nobel Prize.
News of the decree granting Depardieu citizenship set off a frenzy of wry commentary on Russian social networking sites, some musing on why a Westerner would want a Russian passport.
One cartoon posted on the Internet depicted Putin and Depardieu as characters from the French comic books Asterix.
Another showed what appeared to be a nude photo of Depardieu on vacation, with a caption that referred to him as "our compatriot", playing on foreign criticism of how Russians behave on holiday.
Russia does not require people to hand in their foreign passports once they acquire a Russian one. Many Russians have citizenship of other countries and travel without problems.
Depardieu could also request Belgian nationality but has not yet made such a request, said Georges Dallemagne, head of Belgium's parliamentary committee that oversees naturalizations.
"As a Russian he could certainly remain in Belgium, he would possibly need the necessary visas but for a short period he could stay here," said Dallemagne.
France's Constitutional Council last month blocked the planned 75 percent tax rate due to the way it would be applied - but Hollande plans to propose redrafted legislation which will "still ask more of those who have the most". (Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman, Nikolai Isayev and Alexander Fedorov in Moscow, Catherine Bremer in Paris and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Belgium; Writing by Megan Davies; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)