PARIS (AP) — In the last three days, Gerard Depardieu met with Vladimir Putin to get Russian citizenship, got a prime seat at soccer's biggest annual gala in Switzerland and dashed off to Montenegro to eye some real estate.

But in all this whirlwind travel, he didn't manage to show up at a Paris court Tuesday to face a hearing on drunken driving charges because, his lawyer said, he had a vital meeting abroad for an upcoming film.

The 64-year-old French actor was in Montenegro meeting with the prime minister, it turns out.

The lawyer insisted that Depardieu, who has threatened to renounce his French citizenship and turn in his passport and social security card, wasn't trying to dodge justice.

Still, the hearing on a relatively minor charge was elevated to criminal court.

"I'm not escaping court or justice, I'm a Frenchman and will return to France," Depardieu said at a joint news conference with the Montenegrin leader. "I'm not a criminal. I skidded on my scouter, I fell asleep. Even if I eat a salad with too much vinegar, I already have too much alcohol in my blood."

Depardieu's battles against the French government and French justice began nearly at the same time. In November, he fell off his scooter in Paris and was charged with drunken driving. The following week, the mayor of a Belgian border town announced that the man whose roles in 150 films have all but defined French drama had set up house there to avoid rising French taxes.

The prime minister's new epithet for Depardieu - "pathetic" - set the actor off again. In an open letter in mid-December, Depardieu said the country he loved was no longer home to him.

"I'm leaving because you believe that success, creativity, in fact, differences should be punished," he wrote. "I won't cast a stone at (people) who have cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes or too much alcohol or those who fall asleep on their scooter: I am one of them, as you dear media outlets like so much to repeat."

On Saturday, he received a Russian passport directly from Putin; on Monday he appeared at the FIFA awards ceremony in Zurich. And on Tuesday he was in Montenegro, apparently looking at property and meeting with the prime minister.

"I'm not a collector of passports, I'm a citizen of Europe and I hope to be a citizen of the world," he said, as he stood with Montenegro Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and showed his Russian passport. "I owe nothing to the French state."

Depardieu's lawyer Eric de Caumont said his client was not trying to dodge French justice, but was abroad "meeting the producers of a movie," whose filming in New York will begin in January. He did not elaborate.

Depardieu has previously starred in films such as "Green Card" and "Cyrano de Bergerac."

Similar excuses are commonly accepted in French courts, according to Christopher Mesnooh, a lawyer in Paris who is not linked to the Depardieu case. But missing a second hearing will not get the same understanding, Mesnooh noted.

The drunken driving hearing will now be deferred to a criminal court and Depardieu could lose his driving license and could face up to two years in jail, Caumont said.

It's not the actor's first tangle with alcohol. In 1998, Depardieu crashed his motorcycle when his blood-alcohol level was five times over the legal limit, escaping with leg and face injuries.

Depardieu's former wife said his latest dramas have a deeper cause.

"He has a tempest within him and is deeply unhappy," Elisabeth Depardieu told RTL in a radio interview. "In leaving (France), I don't think he's fully realized what he's done."

___

Associated Press writer Predrag Milic contributed from Podgorica, Montenegro.

Follow Thomas Adamson at http://Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP

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