From Russia with riches - and rudeness. Many in the pretty coastal village that lies in the middle of the 93-mile long golden stretch of Cote d'Azur real estate - from Menton to St Tropez - would agree. Already struggling to cope with this summer's influx of rich Russians (60 per cent of all tourists, by local reckoning) Villefranche's 6,000 inhabitants are still dizzied by the news that a Russian oil tycoon has bought the most expensive house in the world, La Villa Leopolda, for 500 million euros just outside the town.
The French state, with its 6.5 percent stake of property deals, is jubilant. And with local businesses enjoying an all-time boom, the benefits are being felt all the way up the coast, so why the Gallic shrugs?
"Economically, there's no doubt that the Russians are helping us out of a tough spot," says waitress Martine. "But not many people have a good word to say about them." Only the day before, she explains, a Russian woman ordered an enormous lunch that included 10 lamb cutlets. She gathered them all on to one plate and put them on the floor - for her dogs.
"They'll sit at one table and then spill over on to all the others, and shout out orders like they're royalty."
"Russians are fiercely competitive," says Richard Green, the CEO of Riviera Home Finders International. "So this is only the beginning." Last week's 500 million euro offer, he explains, is one man throwing down the gauntlet. "The Romanov royal family link draws them to belle Epoque houses." One Russian has been on a waiting list for such a property for 10 months. "He refuses to look at anything costing less than 120 million euros, as a matter of pride."
The billionaires' desire to alter old properties can be a problem, says estate agent Guillaume Borne from nearby Beaulieu-sur-Mer. "One was annoyed about the noise of the train nearby," he says, "so he sent someone to the mairie to offer them 100 million euros to move the station."
In Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat, one oligarch was told he was not allowed to raise the height of his villa as no building in the area could be higher than the lighthouse built during the time of Napoleon III. He offered 15 million euros to raise the lighthouse.
"A colleague told me that Roman Abramovitch put in a 950 million euro bid on a house in Cap Ferrat," says a Nice estate agent. "There was only one problem - it wasn't for sale."
The Russian disinclination to use credit cards has also irritated shop-owners. At Elite, a company based in Nice that rents out Ferraris and Lamborghinis (sometimes just for an hour, to allow Russians to drive along the Promenade des Anglais), receptionist Sophie airs her exasperation. "Although Russians make up the majority of our clientele, they want to pay the deposit in cash, so they'll plonk down 20,000 euros on the counter. Obviously we need a credit card, otherwise they could drive off with a £2m car.
"But the biggest Soviet blitz on the area has yet to happen.
"On August 29, Zenit St Petersburg are playing against Manchester United in Monaco," says Andre Charpentier, manager of the Negresco Hotel in Nice. "It'll bring even more Russians to the area, which is great for us but, yet again, artificially inflated prices have meant that normal fans don't stand a chance. Tickets which should only cost 80 euros are now being sold on the black market to wealthy Russians for 1,300-1,700 euros each. "I know what it is about our Russian friends," says my elderly taxi driver en route to the airport. "In France the wealthy try to hide their riches, but these Russians, they don't get the idea of discretion, do they?"
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This article was written by Celia Walden and first published in the online Telegraph.co.uk, 20th August 2008.