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Gerard Depardieu, embroiled in a high-profile tax row that saw the hulking French star take Russian nationality and angrily vow to quit France, failed to turn up on Tuesday in a Paris court to face drunk driving charges.
The “Cyrano de Bergerac”, “Green Card” and “Asterix & Obelix” star, has already pleaded guilty to driving his scooter while intoxicated and would have escaped with a small fine and penalty points on his driving licence.
But now, having failed to show up for sentencing, Depardieu faces a criminal court hearing which may lead to a fine of 4,500 euros ($5 900) and a possible prison sentence of up to two years.
The 64-year-old, whose flight into tax exile has embarrassed French President Francois Hollande, was arrested in Paris in November after falling off his scooter, which he had been riding with more than three times the legal amount of alcohol in his blood.
Depardieu on Monday attended one of football's top award ceremonies, the Ballon d'Or, in Switzerland, after spending the weekend in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin met him and he was given him a Russian passport.
Taking Russian nationality was the latest volley in a highly publicised row between Depardieu and the French Socialist government over its attempt to raise the tax rate on earnings of more than one million euros to 75 percent.
Speaking to French television Monday from Zurich, Depardieu insisted he was still French.
“I have a Russian passport, but I am French and will certainly have dual Belgian citizenship,” he said, claiming to be a “citizen of the world”.
Depardieu was given a rapturous welcome in Russia. On Saturday, when he picked up his passport, he met President Vladimir Putin at the strongman's sumptuous Black Sea dacha in the resort town of Sochi.
TV footage showed the pair hugging each other and sharing friendly banter over a meal.
Depardieu on Sunday visited the Mordovia region, where he was greeted by folk dancers and the governor suggested that the Oscar-nominated star might set up home in the region best known for its network of prison camps.
When Depardieu first announced he would leave the country to avoid the tax, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault branded the move “pathetic” - prompting the actor to threaten to give up his French citizenship.
France's top constitutional authority, the Constitutional Council, struck down the tax rate on December 29, but French authorities have vowed to push ahead with the tax.
Hollande, who defeated right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency in May, is struggling to balance France's budget amid a stagnant economy and rising unemployment.
Hailed as one of the greatest actors of his generation, Depardieu has in recent years become as famed for his erratic behaviour as for his acting talents.
In August, he was cautioned after punching a car driver who had forced him to swerve on his scooter, and in 2011 he generated global headlines when he urinated in a bottle aboard a plane as it prepared to take off from Paris for Dublin.
Some experts said Depardieu's recent behaviour would almost certainly have an impact on his career.
“It is going to hurt him because it's getting to be a lot,” said Virginie Spies, a media analyst at the University of Avignon. “I wouldn't have said that two or three days ago, but after Russia, it's getting complicated.”
But others said the French public had become accustomed to Depardieu's antics and would continue to support him at the box office.
“Ridicule does not kill, it will not kill him professionally”, said Alain Grasset, film critic for newspaper Le Parisien.
Depardieu has “a lot of film projects to come. He is very sought after, omnipresent. Cinema cannot do without him,” he said. - AFP