PARIS (Reuters) - French film star Gerard Depardieu skipped a court hearing on drink-driving charges on Tuesday as he pursued a headline-grabbing world tour that has seen him set up an alleged tax haven home in Belgium and pick up a passport in Russia.
The garrulous actor's lawyer said he had missed the hearing in Paris because he was now in Montenegro for meetings about a film in which he will play disgraced former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
He was not obliged to attend the pre-trial hearing, but the no-show means the case will turn into a full trial, guaranteeing another day in the spotlight for Depardieu, already caught up in a public row with French authorities over his tax status.
It could also lead to the 64-year-old star of "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Asterix and Obelix" getting a tougher sentence if convicted - in theory up to two years in prison.
"Despite wanting to be there and meet the judges and in no way to escape justice, Gerard Depardieu absolutely could not be present," his lawyer Eric de Caumont told a scrum of reporters outside the Paris courtroom on Tuesday.
He said Depardieu was in Montenegro negotiating a deal for the film about Strauss-Kahn, who was seen as the next president of France until a U.S. sex scandal ended his career.
Depardieu also met Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who suggested he might become a cultural ambassador for Montenegro.
Asked if that meant he planned to add Montenegrin citizenship to his growing list, Depardieu said: "I'm not collecting passports ...
"If I got a Montenegrin passport it would be without personal gain. But ... I'm honored by the idea that I could be a Montenegrin cultural ambassador to the world."
HIGH TAX POLICY
Depardieu's actions have guaranteed international coverage of a high-tax policy by France's Socialist government that has seen a stream of wealthy citizens seek exile.
His purchase of a house in Belgium last month spurred accusations that he was trying to avoid tax.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called the move "pathetic" and unpatriotic, and Depardieu's acceptance of a Russian passport last week provoked even fiercer charges that he had abandoned his homeland.
Russia has a flat income tax rate of 13 percent, compared to the 75 percent on income over 1 million euros ($1.32 million) that President Francois Hollande wants to levy in France.
Actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz, best known abroad for his role in the whimsical movie romance "Amelie", said on Monday he understood those fleeing high taxes and that he also planned to quit France because of a lack of financing for films.
Depardieu denied on Monday that he was leaving France for tax reasons.
"I have a Russian passport, but I remain French and I will probably have dual Belgian nationality. But if I'd wanted to escape the taxman, as the French press say, I would have done it a long time ago," he said.
Depardieu is a larger-than-life figure who began his long career playing thugs and drop-outs before moving on to leading-man roles in films like the romantic comedy "Green Card".
The actor is accused of crashing his scooter in Paris with more than three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood. No one else was injured in the accident.
By skipping the pre-trial hearing, he missed out on the chance to strike a bargain with prosecutors.
A few months before the scooter incident, a car driver accused Depardieu of assault and battery during an altercation in Paris. Last year, the actor outraged passengers on an Air France flight by urinating into a bottle in the aisle.
(Additional Reporting by Thierry Leveque and Catherine Bremer in Paris and Petar Komnenic in Podgorica; Editing by Mark John and Kevin Liffey)