If Hollywood had to find a Russian general for an action film, it could do no better than Alexander Lebed. But the ramrod straight, barrel-chested retired general with the basso profundo voice of a Volga boatman had another prospect in mind during a six-day media blitz of Paris last week - Boris Yeltsin's job.
It would not be the first Russian presidential campaign that started in foreign capitals. Candidate Yeltsin played heavily on the support he had gained from Western leaders, bankers, and businessmen in his bid to be Russia's first elected president in 1991 and again in 1996.
Now the most popular man in Russia aims to do the same. Since his ouster as national security chief October, Mr. Lebed has visited NATO headquarters in Brussels, the United States (twice), Germany, and, most recently, France and Switzerland - his first ventures outside of Russia, except to fight a war in Afghanistan.
His message: President Yeltsin is ailing and won't last the year. Russia needs a strong leader to fight corruption, promote investment, and maintain order. And the West has nothing to fear from a man who once punched out 11 disobedient soldiers at a time.
"I only want to see one dictator in Russia: the rule of law," Lebed insisted throughout his six-day Paris visit, which ended Friday.
In Paris, the "Rambo of the Red Army," as he was dubbed by the popular French press, met with business leaders and political personalities outside of government, visited the Eiffel Tower, and exchanged war stories with France's most popular actor, Alain Delon.
He also made a symbolic stop at the tomb of Gen. Charles de Gaulle at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. Only three years ago, Lebed regularly cited the former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte as his model. But for last year's presidential campaign, he switched allegiance to De Gaulle, who "rescued" France after World War II and again in 1958 after disaffected generals launched a coup d'tat.
The honor, and the image, were not lost on French commentators, who hailed Lebed as "a revelation." For top French businessmen and policymakers, it was a first glimpse of the man the French press predicts will take over the Russian leadership. (This conclusion is not taken for granted in Moscow.)
"They expected an Old Soldier. They discovered a statesman," enthused the conservative daily Le Figaro.
For Lebed, the press attention was a welcome change. He has been largely frozen out of the official Russian news media, except when he travels abroad.
In Paris, he was never far from a television strobe light. After a speech at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), a who's who of the French foreign policy establishment, retired generals and top civil servants pressed in for autographs.
"There is a 'Lebed phenomenon' in Paris, but not all were taken in," says IFRI's Philippe Moreau Defarges. "He is sentimental and very simplistic in his thinking about politics. He is a man with a high idea of Russia and of himself. His obsession is to rebuild Russia as a great power, but he has no sense of perspective or humor. He sees himself as a great white knight. It's hard to predict how he would act in office."
In Paris, Lebed blasted current Russian leaders, especially Mr. Yeltsin, for being ineffectual and out of touch with the concerns of Russians.
He also criticized American leaders, including new Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for pushing NATO enlargement and trying "to monopolize the centers of power here in Europe." As he told the IFRI audience. "Russia is not an enemy, and will never be again. The stability of Russia will do more for the security of Europe than NATO enlargement.... What is better for Poland? To be at the center of a prosperous Europe or at the edge of a rotting empire?"
Rather than expanding the Atlantic Alliance, Lebed proposed a new partnership with France and Germany to integrate Russia into Europe.
However, if NATO enlargement goes ahead, he added, Russians should do all they can to "minimize the consequences."
"Russia has enormous potential. It will either come out of its current crisis as a black hole in Euro-Asia where instability just increases, or as a stable, prosperous, democratic, civilized nation like others. The outcome will be important for the stability of our hemisphere," he said.
The Lebed visit to Paris, as to other Western capitals, was carefully orchestrated to not offend Russian leaders. Lebed met with legislators and an official in the French Foreign Ministry. But high-ranking government contacts were scrupulously avoided.
"Russian democracy is still fragile," said a French Foreign Ministry spokesman. "It faces criminality and serious economic problems. All the West has to be very prudent. We don't want to complicate the situation."