MOSCOW French film star Gerard Depardieu received a hug from President Vladimir Putin and a new Russian passport on Sunday after abandoning his homeland to avoid a new tax rate for millionaires.
Putin signed a decree on Thursday granting Russian citizenship to Depardieu, who has fumed over French President Francois Hollande's plan to impose a 75 percent tax rate.
The two men were shown on state television shaking hands and hugging in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Sunday during what the Kremlin said was a private visit by the actor to Russia.
"A brief meeting between the president and Depardieu took place," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "On the occasion of his visit to Russia, he was handed a Russian passport."
Peskov did not say if Putin personally gave him the passport. Depardieu also told Putin about his career plans, he said.
Depardieu's best known international film is "Green Card", about a poor French immigrant who enters a sham marriage so he can stay in the United States.
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 that Hollande wants to levy in France.
He offered Depardieu the Russian passport saying he had developed warm ties with the actor - even though they had rarely met.
BIG IN RUSSIA
Depardieu is popular in Russia, where he has appeared in many advertising campaigns, including for ketchup. He also worked there in 2011 on a film about the Russian monk Grigory Rasputin, which he discussed with Putin at their meeting.
Depardieu waved his new Russian before media cameras when he arrived in Saransk, a provincial town in the Mordoviya Republic, southeast of Moscow, to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas.
He was greeted on the airport tarmac by local officials and women dressed in traditional Russian gowns who offered him bread and salt as well as "blini" pancakes.
The governor suggested he settled down in Mordoviya, Itar-Tass reported. Residents also presented him with two kittens.
Depardieu bought a house in Belgium last year to avoid the French income tax increase, a move French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called pathetic and unpatriotic.
French Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac said on Sunday he regretted Depardieu's decision to move to Russia and was disappointed the actor was shirking his patriotic duty to help the country during tough economic times.
"I find it a little ridiculous that for tax reasons, this man has gone into exile so far to the East," Cahuzac told Europe 1 radio.
Some of Putin's critics said the passport move was a stunt and pointed out that the president announced last month a campaign to prevent rich Russians keeping their money offshore.
(Reporting By Alexei Anishchuk, additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Angus MacSwan)