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French actor and newly-minted Russian citizen Gerard Depardieu on Saturday compared President Vladimir Putin to the late Pope John Paul II and said the ex-KGB agent was what Russia needed as a leader.
Depardieu is preparing to shoot a new film in Moscow and the Chechen capital Grozny -- a city rebuilt from the ground up after nearly two decades of war -- as he settles in to his new role as global ambassador of Russian culture.
The hulking actor received his new citizenship during a dinner with Putin -- an object of scorn from Russia's youth-driven opposition movement -- in January after getting into a fight with the French authorities over a new 75-percent tax on the super-rich.
He told the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily in an interview published Saturday that he admired what Putin had done in his 13 years in charge.
"I have many Russian friends -- Putin, for example," said the star of films such as "Cyrano de Bergerac" and winner of a multitude of the industry's most coveted prizes.
"I will say what I think about Putin: the Russian nation needs a person just like this -- with a Russian temper. Putin is trying to return just a bit of dignity back to the people."
He then added: "For me, he is like (former French president) Francois Mitterrand or Pope John Paul II. I never said this to journalists before, but this is what I think."
The late pope was a staunch anti-Communist who was partially credited with helping to give strength to the pro-Western Solidarity movement in his native Poland in the 1980s.
Putin himself has called the collapse of the Soviet Union one of the great tragedies of the 20th century and is blamed by the opposition of failing to expose and condemn the worst of the atrocities committed by the dictator Joseph Stalin.
The Kremlin chief has also sought to revive Russia's moribund post-Soviet film industry and has apparently identified Depardieu as the right man for the job -- a world-renowned actor who can showcase the benefits of Putin's low-tax policies at the same time.
Depardieu hotly denied that he took on Russian citizenship as some public relations stunt aimed at reviving his career.
"That is just laughable," he told the popular Moscow tabloid. "I have more that 200 films. Who needs PR after that?!"
The straw-haired actor explained that he simply had to leave France because he could not live by French President Francois Hollande's policies and that he felt more comfortable with former leader Nicolas Sarkozy.
"I liked Sarkozy because everyone was against him," Depardieu said.
The French actor's most recent film was the 2011 hit "Rasputin" about a group of Russian noblemen who set out to kill the secretive monk who served as the all-powerful aide to the Russian tsar.
Depardieu said that film was struggling to get off the ground before he spoke about it to Putin.
"A single phrase from the president managed to resolve a dead end," Depardieu remarked.
His new action film starring Elizabeth Hurley will be filmed in Russia in English and is entitled "Turquoise".
Depardieu is a frequent guest in Grozny and a friend of strongman Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov -- a former guerrilla turned Putin ally who has been accused of widespread human rights violation in the past.
The city is quickly being rebuilt with Kremlin funding and now features gleaming skyscrapers reminiscent of some Gulf states that seem perfectly fit for a slick new thriller.
Depardieu said that "everything in Grozny is normal -- they do not blow up marathons and embassies there."
He admitted however that the Chechen capital was awash with arms and that people carried guns "like bags thrown over their shoulders."
"But they have new roads and houses," he added. "It is a peaceful life."