PARIS — When a Russian orthodox church and cultural center opened its doors Oct. 19 in Paris, Vladimir Putin was supposed to cut the ribbon himself. But after French President Francois Hollande demanded talks on Syria, the Russian president chose to skip the event. The church and center were still inaugurated. Located near the Eiffel Tower and France's foreign ministry, the complex covers an area of nearly 4000 square meters and is topped by five golden domes.
Before construction of the largest Russian Orthodox cultural center in western Europe began in 2012, this area held the headquarters of the French weather office. But now it could hold more sinister purposes, some claim.
A former ambassador to Moscow said in a note to the Elysee Palace that he or she is "certain" that Russian spy services use the premises, where cultural conferences have already started to be organized. "Under these conditions, we recommend reinforcing the anti-spy security at the Quai d'Orsay," the author wrote, citing the complex's proximity to the National Assembly and the office of the defense minister.
Le Temps also learned that German ambassador Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut who doesn't live far from the site, has already taken measures against espionage this summer. The Swiss ambassador is also possibly concerned. There are apartments used by the presidency on Quai Branly just a few meters from the complex which houses, among others, the diplomatic advisor and the chief of personal staff to the head of state.
"All the services concerned there were, at the time, trying to dissuade (then president) Nicolas Sarkozy from accepting the project. I saw many confidential notes of defense pass through there," says a former advisor to the Elysee Palace. But starting in 2008, after the conflict in Georgia, the president's priority was to build trust with the then Russian president Dmitri Medvedev.
The church is topped by five golden domes — Photo: Guilhem Vellut
Alexandre Orlov, an influential Russian ambassador to France, strongly denies rumors of espionage, attributing them to "networks of anti-Moscow oligarchs."
"Accusing Russia of wanting to transform this orthodox culture center in the heart of Paris into a monitoring station, feeds into unnecessary and damaging fantasies," says François Fillon, a conservative candidate in the 2017 French presidential election and a former prime minister during the beginning of the Russian Cultural Center project in 2007.
Fillon, who defends a strategic alliance between Paris and Moscow, made the remarks in Geneva in May at a seminar about Russia.
But others are more cautious about the center. "We are talking about a Russian site with diplomatic immunity, located a few hundred meters from the Quai d'Orsay and the Elysee," says a former diplomat from Central Asia. "Asking questions about its use and the risks that it may preset, are the least of the problems."
The initial choice for the church was Seguin Island, the former site of Renault in Boulogne, far from the Elysee Palace. That's where the Pinault Foundation finished its work on a future museum. "Do you also suspect Washington of using the American church for two purposes?" says an employee of the Russian embassy. "Don't forget that the American embassy is right next to the Elysee Palace. In 2015, the press spoke about NSA surveillance systems that were installed there."
In his book "The Russian France", journalist Nicolas Hénin said the site contained real risks of espionage along with Moscow's desire to use the cultural center as a hidden place of propaganda and soft power in the heart of Paris. "They are left in a Cold War type of configuration," he wrote. For now, no one has denied it.