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February 17, 2019

Georgia's new president: French diplomat who returned to ancestral home

Georgia's new president: French diplomat who returned to ancestral home
'Salome Zurabishvili was born in France to a Georgian family who fled to Paris to escape the Bolshevik regime' - By: AFP/File Vano Shlamov

Salome Zurabishvili, who has been elected Georgia's first female president, is a former French diplomat who exchanged a secure career for the turbulent politics of her ancestral country.

Zurabishvili was born in France to a Georgian family who fled to Paris in the 1921 to escape the Bolshevik regime.

Her family kept up strong ties with Georgian life and culture. Her great-great-grandfather on her mother's side, Niko Nikoladze, was a prominent liberal writer and member of a liberation movement calling for Georgia's independence from the Russian Empire.

She studied international relations at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Sciences before launching a 30-year career as a diplomat, with postings to the United Nations and Washington as well as Chad.

"Decades ago, as a young French diplomat, I couldn't have imagined I would be running for the presidency of my ancestral homeland," she told AFP in an interview last month.

Her diplomatic career came to an end after her posting as France's ambassador to Tbilisi in 2003, then led by President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Following the bloodless Rose Revolution, the new president Mikheil Saakashvili appointed her foreign minister -- after approving the move with then French leader Jacques Chirac.

"She made a brilliant career in France but she stayed a Georgian at heart and a true patriot," Saakashvili said at the time.

- Making enemies -

But Zurabishvili quickly made enemies in the ranks of the parliamentary majority, with MPs and a number of senior diplomats publicly accusing her of arrogance and impulsiveness.

She was sacked in 2005 after a year on the job, though thousands took to the streets of the capital to protest her dismissal.

She then joined the opposition as a member of parliament and became one of Saakashvili's fiercest critics.

In her book "A Woman for Two Countries", published in France after her firing, she wrote: "Now, I have to engage in a political battle, which has never attracted me, which I never practised, which is being imposed on me."

She quit Georgian politics in 2010 to work for the United Nations' Iran Monitoring Expert Group for five years, saying that there "is not the minimum of democracy in Georgia required for the opposition to exist."

She won the election with the backing of billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili's ruling Georgian Dream party.

Georgian voters backed her despite her outsider status and gaffes during her election campaign such as garbling Georgian words.

"It is now important to show that this country has chosen Europe," she said after being elected. "For that purpose, Georgians have elected a European woman president."

She speaks Georgian with a strong French accent and frequent grammatical mistakes. It is just one of her many languages: she also speaks French, English, Italian, German and Russian.

She writes infrequently on Twitter, where she has expressed support for French President Emmanuel Macron.

Her late husband Janri Kashia, was a Georgian-born writer and journalist who died in 2012. During the Soviet era he was forced to leave Georgia as a dissident. He later hosted a popular talk show on Georgian television.

Their daughter is a Paris-based sports journalist at France-24 television and their son is a diplomat now working at the French embassy in London. Both were in Tbilisi during her campaign.

Zurabishvili said she and her children had received death threats during the campaign from people affiliated with Saakashvili's opposition movement.

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