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Geopolitics

Is Russia's New Cultural Center In Paris Used For Spying?

Since the inauguration of the Orthodox cathedral and the Russian cultural center in the French capital on Oct. 19, questions about the use of the site for more sinister purposes have been raised.

A view on the Orthodox cathedral in Paris
A view on the Orthodox cathedral in Paris
Richard Werly

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.

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.

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Geopolitics

Patronage Or Politics? What's Driving Qatar And Egypt Grand Rapprochement

For Cairo, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil,” with anger directed at Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, and others critical of Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood ouster. But the vitriol is now gone, with the first ever visit by Egyptian President al-Sisi to Doha.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with the Emir of Qatar in June 2022 in Cairo

Beesan Kassab, Daniel O'Connell, Ehsan Salah, Hazem Tharwat and Najih Dawoud

For the first time since coming to power in 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi traveled to Doha last month on an official visit, a capstone in a steadily building rapprochement between the two countries in the last year.

Not long ago, however, the photo-op capturing the two heads of state smiling at one another in Doha would have seemed impossible. In the wake of the Armed Forces’ ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Qatar and Egypt traded barbs.

In the lexicon of the intelligence-controlled Egyptian press landscape, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil” working to undermine Egypt’s stability. Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, was banned from Egypt, but, from its social media accounts and television broadcast, it regularly published salacious and insulting details about the Egyptian administration.

But all of that vitriol is now gone.

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