On the Côte d’Azur, Russian malaise in a billionaires’ paradise

The luxury hotel “La Voile d’Or”, in transformation for a Russian promoter based in London, on 29 March 2022 in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat (Valery HACHE / AFP)

On the very secret Cap Ferrat, the paradisiacal peninsula of the French Riviera frequented by Russian billionaires, the first difficulties are felt under the effect of the sanctions linked to the war in Ukraine.

After the Italians and the Saudis, the Russian clientele, “demanding and in a hurry”, arrived in 2006 in this wooded promontory with idyllic inlets, between Nice and Monaco, buying houses for 50 million euros, explains Barbara Benassaya, director of AFP. the real estate agency Pisani Real Estate.

They “artificially made the market grow, they were ready to overpay for the goods,” adds Benjamin Mondou, president of Century 21 Lafage Transactions, head of ten real estate agencies.

More than Cap d’Antibes, where oligarch Roman Abramovich had his habits, Cap Ferrat has become the most Slavic peninsula in the French Mediterranean, taking advantage of a Russian presence that dates back to the era of the tsars in the 19th century.

The Russians own emblematic properties there, such as the old zoo, transformed into an ultra-modern villa, or the villa Santo Sospir, decorated by the artist Jean Cocteau. Anglo-American billionaire Len Blavatnik, born in Ukraine when this country was part of the Soviet Union, also owns the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat there.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich's yacht, L'Eclipse, arrives in the bay of Nice on 4 September 2013
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s yacht, L’Eclipse, arrives in the Bay of Nice on 4 September 2013 (Valery HACHE / AFP / Archives)

A discreet Russian presence: on the port, a wine bar with a Russian name, near a titanic building under construction in the name of a mysterious civil real estate company (SCI) Kozak, domiciled in Munich, a truck of a BTP with writing in Cyrillic.

Owners often hide behind shell companies domiciled in the Bahamas or Guernsey and cultivate the art of secrecy.

Nellcote and the Rolling Stones

Alexandre Ponomarenko’s name appears immediately on the documents of the SCI La Chabanne Project, owner of a 15,000 m2 estate paid 83.5 million euros in 2008. Three residences are being built here.

The Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, on May 6, 2011 in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
The Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, May 6, 2011 in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat (Valery HACHE / AFP / Archives)

There was still more than a year of work left but “Mr. Ponomarenko’s accounts are blocked, the craftsmen will work on what has already been paid and then the construction site should stop”, acknowledges one of the contractors who asked for anonymity. For him a “significant deficit”.

Ponomarenko, who resigned in mid-March from the presidency of Russia’s largest airport, was sanctioned by the European Union four days after the invasion of Ukraine began, for his “close ties to other Vladimir oligarchs. Putin “, the Russian president.

It is impossible to know if this property is one of the approximately thirty Russian properties already “frozen” in France. Contacted by the AFP, the Ministry of Economy has not provided details.

After the seizure in early March near Marseille of a yacht linked to the boss of oil producer Rosneft, Igor Setchin, the French authorities are now discreet on the pursuit of the oligarchs’ assets.

The reception of the Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, May 2011 in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
The reception of the Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, May 2011 in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat (Valery HACHE / AFP / Archives)

On the French Riviera, the fear is that the Russians will no longer be able to pay their employees, to pay their bills. If the goods are frozen, they can no longer be sold or rented.

In Cap Ferrat the names of several oligarchs are known: the Rotenberg family of Villa Shoshana, whose father Arkadi, considered with his brother very close to the Russian president, is under American sanctions.

Villa Nellcote belongs to a SIC on which appear the names of the owner of the Russian steel mill in Magnitogorsk (MMK) Viktor Rachnikov, “influential oligarch” according to the EU who sanctioned him, and that of his daughter Olga to whom he made a gift.

The shutters of this neoclassical building, where the Rolling Stones recorded “Exile on Main Street” in 1970, are closed.

No one answers PC Security. But the irrigation works, the planters are overflowing with flowers. Is it frozen from France? What will happen there this summer?

200,000 euros / month

“There is general uncertainty, we do not know the outcome of the conflict, the situation is not favorable”, acknowledges Jean-François Dieterich, mayor of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a town of 1,500 inhabitants in winter, where the 60% of the 2,074 homes are second homes.

The Amore Vero yacht of a company linked to the boss of the Russian oil giant Rosneft, Igor Setchine, seized by France, 3 March 2022 in La Ciotat
The Amore Vero yacht of a company linked to the boss of the Russian oil giant Rosneft, Igor Setchine, seized by France on 3 March 2022 in La Ciotat (NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP / Archives)

“This will have consequences, a lot of things will come from the Russian clientele, especially in terms of yachting. This year we can expect a lot of boats absent”, he adds even if the local economy is not “single-client”.

In real estate, it’s “wait and see,” according to Ms. Benassaya. “On purchases between two and three million, we have many Russians who have nothing to do with this, who also apologize for this conflict, but have a hard time getting the money out. Some have an account in Munich, so it’s a little bit easier “. “

For the moment, cancellations are mainly linked to renting “large villas at 200,000 euros per month”, he notes.

At SPG Security, which employs up to 40 people per season and whose logo is omnipresent on gates flanked by cameras, “payments are quarterly or yearly,” so too early to feel the effect of the sanctions.

“It is dramatic for everyone,” says a craftsman, who asks for anonymity. “Today my country has lost its soul, before there was a butcher and a hairdresser around me and now there are only real estate agencies” at the same time, “we must stop criticizing: we eat thanks to them”.

Amalgamate me

Russians who live here year-round, mostly women and children, keep a low profile, going so far as to hide the Russian flag on license plates, residents report.

The Ville
The villa “Les Cèdres”, purchased by a Ukrainian, on August 19, 2016 in Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat (JEAN CHRISTOPHE MAGNENET / AFP / Archives)

Many Ukrainians also have ties to Cap Ferrat, such as Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in the country and owner of the football club Shakhtar Donetsk, who bought the Cedars mansion in 2019 for 200 million euros.

“All the clichés that can revolve around the Russian who made his fortune in the 2000s and spent his life in Courchevel (Alps), Saint-Tropez, created many amalgams between Russian businessmen and oligarchs close to power” , regrets Edouard Deschepper, who leads the transformation project of the five-star hotel La Voile d’Or for the Russian promoter Kirill Pissarev, through the investment fund Wainbridge Estate.

“As soon as we see the Russian in a loan application or bank account opening, we are politely answered + no + without explanation,” he says, specifying that his boss lives in London and has moved his fortune out of London. .

The demolition-reconstruction of the former family establishment has not yet begun. Mr. Deschepper mentions technical problems.

The luxury hotel “La voile d’or”, transformed for a Russian promoter based in London, on 29 March 2022 in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat (Valery HACHE / AFP)

In his boat, Arnaud Allary fatalistically observes: “I’ve been here for five generations as a fisherman. 50 years ago it was worth nothing, today I can’t afford to buy and I have a rent of 1,500 euros. I saw a small three-piece leaving over the port to 1.3 million! “.

Without the Russians, bay fishing will be easier this summer: “Sometimes there are 80 yachts here and I have to go fishing farther and farther,” but he adds, orders for lobster will decrease.

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