Pavlensky, artist provocateur, claims top French political scalp

Maxime POPOV
Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky has admitted publishing the video (AFP Photo/Lionel BONAVENTURE)

Moscow (AFP) - Pyotr Pavlensky, the Russian artist provocateur who forced a top French politician to drop out of a key election Friday, is well known for his shock and awe "performances," usually involving pain and discomfort for all involved to highlight causes he thinks are worth fighting for.

Too hot to handle in his home country, the gaunt looking Pavlensky, 35, fled to France where he has caused uproar by putting a sex video online which forced President Emmanuel Macron's candidate for Paris mayor, Benjamin Griveaux, to withdraw from the race.

The 42-year-old Griveaux said he dropped out to protect his family after a website published video excerpts of a man masturbating, accompanied by screengrabs of racy text messages.

"My family does not deserve this. No one should ever be subjected to such abuse."

The Liberation newspaper said Pavlensky claimed to have put the video online to expose Griveaux's "hypocrisy".

"He is someone who constantly brings up family values, who says he wants to be the mayor of families and always cites his wife and children as an example. But he is doing the opposite," Pavlensky told the daily.

Pavlensky has a track record for outrage.

He made global headlines in 2013 after nailing his scrotum to Red Square in Moscow and two years later doused the doors of the FSB secret police headquarters with petrol and set them on fire.

"What I denounce, is how the individual has been reduced to the state of an animal by the state, propaganda and the instruments of power," he said shortly before leaving Russia in 2017.

The video tape scandal was not his first stunt in Paris.

- Engaged art or 'idiotic'? -

In October 2017, he set fire to offices of the Bank of France on Place Bastille, site of the attack on the infamous fortress at the start of the French revolution in 1789.

The bank's presence on such hallowed revolutionary ground was "historically shameful," Pavlensky said.

Ultimately, he was sentenced to three years jail, two suspended, for the destruction of other people's property.

Jail time only proved, however, that prisoners were "treated like animals," he said.

Pavlensky and his companion Oksana Shalygina obtained asylum in France after leaving Russia, claiming that he faced 10 years in a camp, although at the time Russian press reports said he was threatened by legal action over alleged sexual assault against an actress.

Pavlensky rejects such charges.

Asked in 2017 why he chose to come to France without being able to speak the language -- nor English -- he said: "France is the alma mater of the Russian revolution... Everything that is worthwhile in Russia came from France."

A graduate of the Academy of Art and Industry in Saint Petersburg and father of two children, Pavlensky on several occasions has demanded that he should be charged with terrorist acts.

In 2013, he laid down in front of the Saint Petersburg assembly stark naked and wrapped in barbed wire in protest against what he said were repressive laws in Russia.

His hardline stance and eye watering protests have elicited a mixed response among Russian opposition groups.

Some defend his actions as a form of engaged art but others such as late rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva were blunter, branding his actions "idiotic."