Protesters express anger at French company over stay in Russia


A man in a Russian military uniform stood at the entrance of a large home improvement store in the Polish capital, paying tribute to and thanking shoppers for funding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Polish activist Arkadiusz Szczurek, whose chest is covered with medals, protests at French-owned retailer Leroy Merlin in Warsaw as spring approaches and shoppers flock to buy plants and gardening equipment. There was. Some shoppers turned to go elsewhere. Others were indifferent or annoyed.

“Millions of Ukrainians are fleeing bombs and gunfire and people are dying,” Ukrainian activist Natalia Panchenko said at a small rally over the weekend. “But they’re still in business and I don’t think there’s a problem with financing the war.”

It was the latest protest in Poland over Leroy Merlin’s decision to continue operating 112 stores in Russia despite many other western companies shutting them down. Leroy Merlin won’t comment other than to say he’s not responsible for the war. For one of the foreign companies leaving Russia with a big footprint, turnover could take a financial hit, or stay could damage their reputation.

It’s a painful choice for a company based in countries like France and Italy that does extensive business in Russia and is keeping an eye on future trade after the war. However, many companies with large stakes in Russia have withdrawn and are enduring the blow as a result.

McDonald’s closed 850 stores in Russia in March, but it still pays 62,000 employees. The fast-food chain said it was losing $55 million in sales per month from Russia and expected an inventory loss of $100 million due to store closures. Energy company Shell said it was paying $3.9 billion to cover the cost of stopping its investment in Russia, while rival BP paid $25.5 billion in pre-tax expenses to sell its stake in Russian energy producer Rosneft. said to be burdened.

Other companies still operate partially in Russia. PepsiCo, Nestle, and pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson still supply essentials such as pharmaceuticals and infant formula, while stopping sales of non-essential products. Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli and Danish brewer Carlsberg say they are only operating enough to support Russian workers.

Leroy Merlin, with stores similar to Home Depot, is one of Russia’s highest-grossing foreign companies. It is said to have helped Ukrainian refugees, including workers. Paris-based parent company Adeo Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has identified these French companies with important Russian operations as supporting Russia’s war effort. In his speech to the French Parliament in March, he mentioned the automakers Renault, Leroy Merlin and two other retailers belonging to the Adeo Group: supermarket chain Auchan and sporting goods chain Decathlon.

It wasn’t long before Renault and Decathlon announced they would cease operations in Russia, but Leroy Merlin and Auchan stayed.

For many people in Ukraine, where Leroy Merlin closed six stores in a bombing, this feels like a betrayal. In Poland, which borders Ukraine and hosts more refugees than any other country, many are very critical of the French company.

Although Poland is a member of NATO, concerns remain that Poland could become a target for the Kremlin’s revived colonial ambitions, especially if Russia claims victory over Ukraine.

Dominik Gąsiorowski, chief organizer of the Leroy Merlin boycott in Poland, believes that holding business to a company that is a major Russian taxpayer is one of the few specific things that ordinary people can do to influence the outcome of the war.

“If we, as a Western country, support companies that are staying in Russia, we will end up paying Putin to invade us,” he said. “I refuse to believe that my people, the Poles, can’t do such a small gesture of solidarity as choosing another store a few kilometers away during the genocide.”

At a picketing last weekend, activists held a poster on a container next to Leroy Merlin’s green logo, calling it “a trash can for corpses” with the message “Leroy Kremlin supports the invasion of Russia”.

This product was designed by artist Bartłomiej Kiełbowicz and created fake labels that people put on shelves in the Leroy Merlin store. This includes brooms and dustpans “to get rid of guilt.” There is another one for the hammer. “For Murder”.

Andrzej Kubisiak, deputy director of the Polish Economic Institute, found that while it is too early to know the full effect of the protests, the app-monitoring movement on the streets has resulted in reduced traffic to Leroy Merlin, Auchan and Decathlon stores. A Polish bank analysis of card payments also showed a decrease in purchases.

However, Kubisiak said historically the boycott movement will lose vitality over time, and he expects the movement to be the same as Poles, who are facing inflation of more than 12%, are guided above all by consumer prices. All three French retailers are known for their competitive prices.

Polish shoppers’ reactions to the protests were mixed.

Wiesław Bobowik, a 64-year-old teacher, said he thought the boycott was outrageous and was not persuaded to shop elsewhere.

“I hurt the French and they are our friends,” he said, carrying potted plants and a large bag of dirt in the trunk of his car. “Why would I do that?”

Activists are also encouraging people not to shop in Auchan. Gąsiorowski said the move is primarily focused on Leroy Merlin as Leroy Merlin is the second-highest-grossing foreign company in Russia in 2020, behind the discontinued cigarette maker Philip Morris International. Auchan was in sixth place.

But he stresses that the move is bigger than Leroy Merlin.

“Every other company is taking them as an example,” he said.

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Colleen Barry from Milan, Anne D’Innocenzio from New York, Dee-Ann Durbin from Detroit, and Kelvin Chan from London contributed to this report.

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