WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A man in a Russian military uniform stood at the entrance to a large home improvement store in Poland’s capital, greeting shoppers and thanking them for funding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. .
Chest adorned with medals, Polish activist Arkadiusz Szczurek protested at a French-owned Leroy Merlin retail store in Warsaw as shoppers flocked to buy plants and garden equipment with the arrival of spring. Some shoppers turned around to go elsewhere. Others were indifferent or irritated.
“Millions of Ukrainians are being forced to flee bombs and shooting, (and) people are dying,” Ukrainian activist Natalia Panchenko said at the rally last weekend. “But they’re still doing business and they don’t see any problem with financing the war.”
It marked the latest protest in Poland over Leroy Merlin’s decision to continue operating 112 stores in Russia, even as many other Western companies have suspended operations there. Leroy Merlin would not comment other than to say that he is not responsible for the war. It is one of the foreign companies with a large presence in Russia that has had to choose between taking the financial hit of leaving or facing reputational damage by staying.
It’s a painful choice for companies based in countries like France and Italy, which do big business in Russia and keep an eye on future trade after the war is over. However, many corporations with large holdings in Russia have pulled out and are taking a hit to their bottom line.
McDonald’s closed its 850 stores in Russia in March, but continues to pay 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 in inventory due to store closures. Energy company Shell says it is taking a $3.9bn charge to cover the cost of exiting investments in Russia, while rival BP said it is taking $25.5bn in charges before taxes to get out of its holdings in Russian energy producer Rosneft.
Other companies continue to operate partially in Russia. PepsiCo, Nestlé and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson continue to supply essential items like medicine and baby formula while halting non-essential sales. Italian tire maker Pirelli and Danish brewer Carlsberg say they are operating long enough to support their Russian workers.
Leroy Merlin, with stores similar to Home Depot, is among the highest-earning foreign companies in Russia. He says he has helped Ukrainian refugees, including their workers. Parent company Adeo Group in Paris did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
These French companies with major operations in Russia have been singled out by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for aiding Russia’s war effort. In a speech to the French parliament in March, he named Renault carmaker Leroy Merlin and two other retailers belonging to the Adeo Group: supermarket chain Auchan and sporting goods chain Decathlon.
Shortly after, Renault and Decathlon said they would suspend Russian operations, but Leroy Merlin and Auchan stayed on.
To many in Ukraine, where Leroy Merlin closed all six of its stores amid bombing, that feels like a betrayal. In Poland, which borders Ukraine and has accepted more refugees than any other country, many people are highly critical of the French company.
Poland is a member of NATO, but there are still fears that it too could become a target of the Kremlin’s revived colonial ambitions, particularly if Russia claims victory in Ukraine.
Dominik Gąsiorowski, the main organizer of the Polish movement to boycott Leroy Merlin, believes that withholding business from a company that is a major taxpayer in Russia is one of the few concrete things that ordinary people can do to influence the outcome of the war.
“If we as Western nations support companies that stay in Russia, we are eventually paying Putin to invade us,” he said. “I refuse to believe that my people, the Polish people, cannot make such a small gesture of solidarity during a genocide like choosing another store a few miles away.”
During last weekend’s picketing, activists held up a sign of a container along with a green Leroy Merlin logo, calling it a “corpse container” with the message “Leroy Kremlin supports the Russian invasion.”
It was designed by artist Bartłomiej Kiełbowicz, who has also created fake labels that people have been pasting on shelves inside Leroy Merlin stores, including one for a broom and dustpan “to sweep away guilt”. There is another for hammers – “to kill.”
Andrzej Kubisiak, deputy director of the Polish Economic Institute, said it is too early to know the full effect of the protests, but an app that monitors movement on the streets has shown less traffic at Leroy Merlin, Auchan and Decathlon stores. A Polish bank analysis of card payments also shows a drop in purchases.
But Kubisiak said boycott movements historically lose steam over time, and he hopes this will too, as Poles, facing inflation above 12%, will be guided by consumer prices above all else. All three French retailers are known for their competitive prices.
Polish buyers’ reactions to the protests have been mixed.
Wiesław Bobowik, a 64-year-old teacher, said he found the boycott ridiculous and was not convinced to shop elsewhere.
“I would be hurting the French, and they are our friends,” he said, loading potted plants and large bags of soil into the trunk of his car. “Why do that?”.
Activists also encourage people not to shop at Auchan. But Gąsiorowski said the move is primarily focused on Leroy Merlin because it was the second-highest-earning foreign company in Russia in 2020, after cigarette maker Philip Morris International, which suspended investments. Auchan was number 6.
But the movement, he stresses, is bigger than Leroy Merlin.
“All other companies look to them as an example,” he said. “If they are successful while collaborating with Putin, all the major players will go back to Russia.”
Colleen Barry in Milan, Anne D’Innocenzio in New York, Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit, and Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.