WARSAW, Poland – A man in 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.
Medal-adorned Polish activist Arkadiusz Szczurek demonstrated outside a French Leroy Merlin store in Warsaw as shoppers flocked to buy plants and gardening equipment with the onset of spring. Some buyers have turned around to go elsewhere. Others were indifferent or irritated.
“Millions of Ukrainians are being forced to flee from bombs and gunfire, (and) people are dying,” Ukrainian activist Natalia Panchenko said at the rally last weekend. “But they continue to do business and see no problem in financing the war.”
It was the latest protest in Poland against Leroy Merlin’s decision to continue operating 112 stores in Russia, even as many other Western companies have suspended operations there. Leroy Merlin has said nothing other than to say that he is not responsible for the war. It is among foreign companies with a large presence in Russia that have 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 a lot of business in Russia and keep their sights set on future trade once the war is over. However, many companies with large stakes in Russia have pulled out and are suffering the consequences.
McDonald’s closed its 850 stores in Russia in March, but is still paying its 62,000 employees. The fast-food chain said it was losing $55 million a month in sales from Russia and expects to lose $100 million in inventory due to store closures. Energy firm Shell says it is taking a $3.9 billion charge to cover the cost of exiting investments in Russia, while rival BP said it is taking a $25.5 billion charge before taxes to get out of its holdings in Russian energy producer Rosneft.
Other companies still partially operate in Russia. PepsiCo, Nestlé and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson are still supplying essential products like medicine and baby formula while halting non-essential sales. Italian tire maker Pirelli and Danish brewer Carlsberg say they are working just enough to support their Russian workers.
Leroy Merlin, with stores similar to Home Depot, is among the foreign companies with the highest revenue in Russia. He says he has helped Ukrainian refugees, including his workers. Parent company Adeo Group in Paris did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
These French companies with significant operations in Russia have been designated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as contributing to Russia’s war effort. In an address to the French parliament in March, he mentioned carmaker Renault, Leroy Merlin and two other retailers belonging to the Adeo group: supermarket chain Auchan and sporting goods chain Decathlon.
Shortly after, Renault and Decathlon announced they would suspend Russian operations, but Leroy Merlin and Auchan remained.
For many in Ukraine, where Leroy Merlin has closed its six stores amid bombardment, it looks like a betrayal. In Poland, which borders Ukraine and has taken in more refugees than any other country, many people are very critical of the French company.
Poland is a member of NATO, but there are still fears it could also become the target of the Kremlin’s rekindled colonial ambitions, particularly if Russia claims victory in Ukraine.
Dominik Gąsiorowski, the main organizer of the Polish Leroy Merlin Boycott movement, believes that denying business to a company that is a major taxpayer in Russia is one of the few concrete things ordinary people can do to influence the outcome of the war.
“If we as Western nations support the companies that stay in Russia, we are paying Putin to invade us eventually,” he said. “I refuse to believe that my people, the Polish people, cannot make such a small gesture of solidarity during a genocide than to choose another store a few kilometers away.”
During last weekend’s picket, activists held up a poster of a container next to Leroy Merlin’s green logo, calling it a ‘garbage can for a corpse’ with the message ‘Leroy Kremlin supports Russian invasion’ .
It was designed by artist Bartłomiej Kiełbowicz, who also created fake labels that people stuck on the shelves of Leroy Merlin stores, including one for a broom and a dustpan “to sweep away the guilt”. There is another for hammers – “to kill”.
Andrzej Kubisiak, deputy director of the Polish Economic Institute, said it was too early to know the full effect of the protests, but an app monitoring movement on the streets showed less traffic to Leroy Merlin stores. , Auchan and Decathlon. A Polish banking analysis of card payments also shows a decline in purchases.
But Kubisiak said historic boycott movements wane over time, and he expects this one to too, as Poles, faced with over 12% inflation, will first and foremost be guided by consumer prices. The three French retailers are known for their competitive prices.
Reactions from Polish buyers to the protests have been mixed.
Wiesław Bobowik, a 64-year-old teacher, said he found the boycott ridiculous and was not persuaded to shop elsewhere.
“I would hurt the French, and they are our friends,” he said, loading potted plants and large bags of soil into the trunk of his car. “Why would I do that?”
Activists are also encouraging people not to shop at Auchan. But Gąsiorowski said the move was mainly focused on Leroy Merlin as it was the foreign company with the second highest revenue in Russia in 2020, after cigarette maker Philip Morris International, which suspended investments. Auchan was number 6.
But the movement, he points out, is broader than Leroy Merlin.
“All other companies look to them as an example,” he said. “If they succeed while collaborating with Putin, all the main players will return 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.