Jan 5, 2015
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Cosmetic damage: Yves Rocher mired in Russian opposition trial

Jan 5, 2015

MOSCOW, Russia - Yves Rocher's affordable cosmetics have made it a symbol of French success in Russia but the company has become awkwardly embroiled in the case against opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The anti-corruption crusader, who has spearheaded opposition to the regime of President Vladimir Putin, was handed a suspended sentence on December 30th on fraud charges that are widely seen as another attempt to silence him.

He and his brother Oleg were accused of defrauding Yves Rocher Vostok, a subsidiary of the French company, by overcharging for services with their transport company Glavpodpiska.

In a shock move, Oleg Navalny was sent to prison for three and a half years -- a sign the regime is seeking to pressure Alexei Navalny by punishing his family and friends.

The role of Yves Rocher remains unclear. Was it manipulated by authorities, or trying to stay in the good graces of the regime in one of its most important markets?

The cosmetics company issued a statement after the verdict saying its Russian subsidiary had "acted in accordance with the practices and procedures of all international and independent companies and the more general principle of business ethics".

But some critics think otherwise.

Well-known literature translator Andre Markowicz wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that it was "clear the trap in which the Navalny brothers have fallen was organised by Putin with the agreement, active or at least passive, of a company whose strategic interests involve promoting ... the establishment or consolidation of powers that stifle all opposition."

Navalny's supporters on social networks have also made their feelings clear on the Yves Rocher Facebook page. Among the typical sentiments were "I hope your company collapses as soon as possible", "Monsters" and "Burn in hell".

- 'A typical expat' -

The origins of the case remain murky.

Yves Rocher says it was not consulted when the investigation was started in 2012 and only pressed charges to gain access to the file. It later did an audit that showed it suffered no damages at the hands of the Navalny brothers, and that their rates were very competitive.

The complaint was signed by former head of Yves Rocher Vostok, Bruno Leproux, a Frenchman who has been doing business in Russia for more than 15 years.

Alexeï Navalny | Photo: Yves Rocher

He quietly stepped down in 2013 as criticism of the case grew louder, saying his contract had not been extended.

Leproux claimed to news site Russia Open that he had been the victim of a confidence trick by the Navalny brothers, who also threatened him, but he was never questioned during the trial.

One journalist Zoya Svetova, who met Leproux, described him as "a typical expat ... who pleases the Russian government but less so the French government."

Yves Rocher, a family firm which started life in the 1950s selling hemorrhoid cream, faces a difficult balancing act.

Associating itself with government repression is bad for business, but keeping on the right side of the Russian government is a priority.

Russia is its second-largest market after France, with its Russian subsidiary brings in 15 percent of overall business, or more than two billion euros ($2.4 billion).

It was one of the first brands to establish itself in Russia after the end of the Cold War, opening its first boutique on Moscow's famed Tverskaya Street in 1991.

Combining the attraction of a "made in France" beauty label with affordable prices, it grew quickly and now boasts 300 boutiques and a quarter-million clients in Russia.

Navalny rose to prominence by revealing corruption in government and state-run firms on his blog, rallying tens of thousands during the 2011-12 anti-Putin protests and unsuccessfully running for mayor of Moscow in 2012.

The Russian authorities have responded by bringing several legal cases against him. He has been under house arrest for nearly a year in relation to another case.

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