TBILISSI - A new French prime minister will soon be installed. But not in France - in Georgia, in the former Soviet Union.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has nominated Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire leader of the opposition, as prime minister. For those who didn't know: Ivanishvili had been French by citizenship, not Georgian.
Luckily for him, Georgian MPs will not have to solve a legal puzzle that had kept experts busy since Ivanishvili’s opposition coalition stormed to a surprise victory in the October 1 legislative elections.
The question was whether someone who had been stripped of the Georgian citizenship would be allowed to become head of state. This thorny question was resolved in extremis, when Saakashvili signed a decree restoring Ivanishvili's Georgian nationality on Oct. 16.
Ivanishvili’s Georgian nationality had been revoked in Oct. 2011, when he announced his entry into politics. The official reason was that his triple nationality was not legal: at the time, Ivanishvili had Russian and French passports as well as Georgian.
Ivanishvili subsequently renounced his Russian citizenship to prove his independence from Moscow, but was still not able to restore his Georgian citizenship, although he was born in Chorvila, a village 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. He was left with his French nationality only.
Disputes over Ivanishvili's citizenship were a constant theme during the electoral campaign. His opposition coalition, Georgian Dream, accused the government of political persecution. The government declared that Ivanishvili could easily become Georgian again, simply by writing a letter to the President.
At the end of May, Parliament adopted a constitutional amendment concerning EU citizens born in Georgia, in order to allow the billionaire to vote and run for election without Georgian citizenship. "Political reasons were behind the revocation of Ivanishvili's citizenship, and that was illegal. Afterwards, the wording of the amendment was a problem," explains legal expert Irakli Kabakhidze, associate professor at the University of Tbilisi. "It did not expressly say that someone could become prime minister."
The controversy over the nationality of the future prime minister overshadowed another question: how did Ivanishvili acquire his French citizenship? In an interview with French magazine L'Express, the billionaire explained that he had lived six years in France, "in the second half of the 1990s," in the suburbs of Louveciennes and La-Celle-Saint-Cloud, outside Paris, where still he owns property. The businessman, who made his fortune in Russia, also bought a residence in Saint-Tropez, on the French Riviera.
When he returned to Georgia in 2003, he "became friends with all the French ambassadors" who came to Tbilisi, especially Eric Fournier, ambassador from 2007 to 2011.
Fournier encouraged Ivanishvili to apply for French citizenship at the beginning of 2008, when the billionaire was still unknown to the public. As ambassador, Fournier gave a favorable recommendation for the naturalization. "It was an easy case," Fournier says. "There was no doubt about how it would go. He is solvent, his wife and children are French citizens, and he speaks French." At the beginning of 2009, Ivanishvili became a French citizen.
But the relations between the French diplomat and the billionaire went beyond the bureaucratic: they became friends. Fournier, not your stereotypical diplomat, is famously energetic...and spontaneous. In August 2008, during the war between Georgia and Russia, he hoisted the French flag at the Sachkere base near Gori, to warn the Georgians of the arrival of Russian troops.
Fournier arrived in Georgia in September 2007. It was his first post as an ambassador. In the theatrical, masculine atmosphere of Georgian public life, he quickly noticed Ivanishvili, who was at the time a quiet philanthropist who avoided the limelight. Among his good works was financing the French School of the Caucasus. The two men met several times to discuss the project, and became close. Their families got together informally, and even spent vacations together.
Yoga and fine wines
The billionaire, with his careful manners, could not be more different from the local Georgian elite. He does yoga, likes psychology, animals and trees, sips Pétrus wine (one of the world’s most expensive), and collects art. "I have a certain admiration for this extremely calm, modest man, with his elegance and good taste," Fournier says.
For the birthday of Bera, one of the billionaire’s albino sons, who is a famous rapper, the French ambassador organized a private session with French rapper MC Solaar.
In the Georgian capital, a small town where everyone knows everyone else, there are no secrets. The diplomat's friendship with Ivanishvili surprised the diplomatic corps and irritated President Saakashvili and his entourage, which includes many French-speakers.
"Fournier became an activist," a Georgian close to the president told us just before the elections. However, Fournier also had privileged access to Saakashvili. In May 2010, after a concert in support of refugees from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the president warmly toasted "the craziest ambassador in Tbilisi," who blushed in pleasure. That was before Ivanishvili entered politics.
The French School of the Caucasus was inaugurated in June 2010 by Saakashvili. Its director is Florence Fournier, the ambassador's wife, who was chosen by Ivanishvili. There was nothing illegal about it, but people gossiped. When the French embassy had to move out of its rundown quarters, the billionaire is said to have offered to finance the renovation. France's foreign office chose to rent instead.
Fournier left Georgia in October 2011, just as Ivanishvili began his political career. He is now director for continental Europe at the French foreign ministry. In this role, he continues to follow Georgian affairs with a passion. Remarks on the origins of Ivanishvili's fortune, made in Russia during the troubled 1990s, make Fournier sigh. He himself was formerly a counselor at the Moscow French embassy, and cites the example of Kakha Bendukidze, one of Saakashvili's closest political allies after the revolution, who was a renowned heavy industry oligarch in Russia.
At the end of his posting in Tbilisi, Fournier wondered if he should leave the diplomatic service and stay in Georgia. He thought of starting a recycling plant, or building a golf resort, but in the end decided not to.
Before he left, Ivanishvili told him: "If you want to come back one day for any reason, just let me know."
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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