Protesters are venting their anger at the French company for staying in Russia

Protesters are venting their anger at the French company for staying in Russia

WARSAW, Poland (AP) – A man dressed in a Russian military uniform stood at the entrance of a large hardware store in the Polish capital, greeting shoppers and thanking them for funding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Polish activist Arkadiusz Szczurek, whose chest was adorned with medals, protested outside a French-owned Leroy Merlin shop in Warsaw as shoppers flocked to buy plants and gardening tools with the arrival of spring. Some shoppers turned to go elsewhere. Others were indifferent or irritated.

“Millions of Ukrainians are forced to flee from bombs and gunfire, (and) people are dying,” Ukrainian activist Natalia Panchenko said at last weekend’s rally. “But they continue to do business and see no problem in financing the war.”

It was the latest protest in Poland against Leroy Merlin’s decision to continue operating 112 stores in Russia, even as many other Western companies have ceased operations there. Leroy Merlin would say nothing but say that he is not responsible for the war. It is among foreign companies with a large presence in Russia that has had to decide whether to accept the financial consequences of leaving or tarnish its reputation by staying.

It’s a painful decision for companies based in countries like France and Italy that do extensive business in Russia and eye future trade after the war ends. However, many companies with large holdings in Russia have pulled out, taking the hit to their bottom line.

McDonald’s has closed its 850 stores in Russia in March, but still pays its 62,000 employees. The fast-food chain said it is losing $55 million a month in sales from Russia and expects to lose $100 million worth of inventory due to store closures. Energy company Shell says it is asking for a $3.9 billion fee to cover the cost of exiting investments in Russia, while competitor BP said it needs $25.5 billion in pre-tax fees to divest its stake in Russian energy producer Rosneft.

Some other companies are still active in Russia. PepsiCo, Nestle and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson continue to supply essential products like medicines and baby formula while halting non-essential sales. Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli and Danish brewer Carlsberg say they operate just enough to support their Russian workers.

With businesses similar to Home Depot, Leroy Merlin is one of the top-selling foreign companies in Russia. It says it helped Ukrainian refugees, including its workers. Paris-based parent company Adeo Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Such French companies with significant activities in Russia were singled out by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in support of the Russian war effort. In a speech to the French parliament in March, he mentioned carmaker Renault, Leroy Merlin and two other retailers belonging to the Adeo group: supermarket chain Auchan and sporting goods chain Decathlon.

Soon after, Renault and Decathlon said they would close Russian operations, but Leroy Merlin and Auchan stayed.

For many in Ukraine, where Leroy Merlin has shut down his six stores amid bombings, it feels like a betrayal. In Poland, which borders Ukraine and has taken in more refugees than any other country, many people are very critical of the French company.

Poland is a member of NATO, but there are still fears it could also become a target of the Kremlin’s revived colonial ambitions, particularly if Russia claims victory in Ukraine.

Dominik Gąsiorowski, top organizer of Poland’s Leroy Merlin boycott movement, believes withholding business from a company that is a big taxpayer in Russia is one of the few concrete things ordinary people can do to change the outcome of the crisis to influence war.

“If we, as Western nations, support companies that stay in Russia, we’re paying Putin to eventually invade us,” he said. “I refuse to believe that during a genocide, my people, the Polish people, cannot make such a small gesture of solidarity as choosing another shop a few kilometers away.”

During last weekend’s picket, activists held a placard with a container next to Leroy Merlin’s green logo, calling it a “bin for a corpse” with the message “Leroy Kremlin supports the Russian invasion.”

It was designed by artist Bartłomiej Kiełbowicz, who also designed fake labels that people stuck on shelves in Leroy Merlin stores, including one for a broom and dustpan “to sweep away guilt.” There is another for hammers – “for killing”.

Andrzej Kubisiak, deputy director of the Polish Economic Institute, said it was too early to see the full impact of the protests, but an app monitoring movement on the streets showed less traffic to Leroy Merlin’s shops , Auchan and Decathlon passes. An analysis of Polish banks on card payments also shows a decline in purchases.

However, Kubisiak said boycott movements are losing momentum over time and he expects that will be the case as Poles facing inflation above 12% are being guided by consumer prices above all. All three French retailers are known for their competitive prices.

Polish buyers’ reactions to the protests were mixed.

Wiesław Bobowik, a 64-year-old teacher, said he found the boycott ridiculous and would not be persuaded to shop elsewhere.

“I would hurt the French and they are our friends,” he said, loading potted plants and large sacks of dirt into his trunk. “Why should I do that?”

The activists also encourage people not to shop at Auchan. But Gąsiorowski said the movement is mostly focused on Leroy Merlin because it was the second-highest-grossing foreign company in Russia in 2020, after cigarette maker Philip Morris International, which suspended investment. Auchan was No. 6.

But the movement, he insists, is bigger than Leroy Merlin.

“Every other company looks at them as an example,” he said. “If they succeed in working with Putin, all the big players will return to Russia.”

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

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