Geopolitics

The French Connection In Trial Of Putin Critic

An accusation, later withdrawn, by French cosmetics giant Yves Rocher stands at the center of the case of against celebrated anti-Kremlin blogger Alexei Navalny. Who's pulling the strings?

May 2013 protest in support of Alexei Navalny in Moscow
May 2013 protest in support of Alexei Navalny in Moscow
Marie Jégo

MOSCOW — Russian justice is on full display in the trial of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the trial that began last week, the celebrated blogger and lawyer is accused, along with his brother Oleg, of swindling the French comestics company Yves Rocher. Navalny could face a sentence of up to 10 years.

The two men have been charged with embezzling 26 million rubles ($723,800) from Yves Rocker Vostok, the company’s Russian branch in 2008 when Oleg Navalny worked as a shipping department manager of the Russian postal service.

Yves Rocher, a worldwide giant in the cosmetic industry with an annual turnover around $2 billion, had signed a contract with the brothers’ transportation company. The French company declared much later — well after the contract had expired — that they had been overcharged for a service with so few advantages. In a word, it was an alleged scam.

The criminal case began in December 2012 when Bruno Leproux, the French manager of Yves Rocher Vostok, filed a complaint. Investigators were then quick to interrogate and search the homes of the Navalny brothers and those close to them. The press questioned the aggressive investigation, convinced the zealous inquiry committee had some special interest in this case because of the Alexei Navalny's very public criticisms of the Kremlin. Bloggers wrote that the French company had been subjected to pressure from Russian authorities, with some even calling for boycotts of the company’s products.

An act of manipulation?

The brothers were quick to denounce what they characterized as a crude act of manipulation. They acknowledged that their company had had a contract with Yves Rocher Vostok to send cosmetics to a region in central Russia, but asserted it was a legitimate business deal. The exchange had ended after three years when the contract expired, and Yves Rocher mentioned no fraud upon completion of the contract.

The current trial is just the latest public showdown for the lawyer and fierce opponent of Vladimir Putin — even on the issue of Ukraine, rare among Russian opposition activists. He became popular by denouncing growing corruption within the Kremlin on his blog.

Navalny at the courthouse in 2011 — Photo: yfrog

While Navalny is idolized by many who see him as a kind of justice fighter, he is a thorn in the side of Russia’s elite. Now under house arrest, he has been forbidden to use the Internet or his telephone. In July 2013, Navalny was given a five-year suspended sentence for allegedly embezzling funds from the state-owned KirovLes company. But those accusations were also widely disputed.

While the noose tightens around the opponent’s neck, Russian justice is using Kafkaesque methods. According to Russian law, the defense in the current trial gets access to the prosecutor’s records only at the very last moment. (There were 157 volumes of files in the Yves Rocher case). In fact, the Navalny brothers just learned then that Yves Rocher had withdrawn its complaint a long time ago. Yet the trial is still on the table.

“The withdrawal had no consequence,” Alexei Navalny wrote on his blog, challenging the ban that was imposed on him. “The searches and questioning are still going on, as if nothing happened, while Yves Rocher remains silent.”

The Georgian writer Boris Akounine, who often stays in France, has been moved by this case. In an open letter to Yves Rocher, he says he finds it regrettable that the company “helped Putin’s power to isolate” Alexei Navalny. He describes the latter as “the man who fights against state corruption with boldness and consistency.

He continues, “If the most famous Russian opponent goes to jail because of the most famous French company in Russia, then the name of Yves Rocher will be equated with shame.”

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Society

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

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.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

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.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

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?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

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.The Conversation

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Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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