Sarko’s Angels No More?

European Politics, Politics

When French President Nicolas Sarkozy personally shepherded three non-white women of immigrant background into his government in May 2007, it was a bold move; no government before, left or right, had been as inclusive. (To appreciate just how groundbreaking it was, read my previous post.) Not to mention that Fadela Amara is a Socialist.

Fadela Amara (Image under CC license from Flickr user h de c)

Fadela Amara (Image under CC license from Flickr user h de c)

In a government bureaucracy as status conscious as France’s, it was all the bolder because all three come from truly modest backgrounds. Fadela Amara, the long-time fighter for women’s rights in the impoverished suburbs, grew up as one of 11 brothers and sisters in what she describes as a shanty-town. Rachida Dati, the tenacious networker who shone as spokeswoman for Sarkozy’s 2006 presidential campaign, was one of 12 children of a Moroccan bricklayer. Rama Yade, just 30 when she was appointed, was the daughter of two influential Senegalese professors, but after their divorce her mother raised her in the towerblocks of Hauts-de-Seine. (Bonus trivia: as teenager, she only got to go on holidays thanks to the summer holiday camps which the communist French People’s Aid ran for the underprivileged).

It was a “fairytale”, as Guardian journalist Angelique Chrisafis called Dati’s story last month. But is it, now, as she put it, a fairytale that “has started to go spectacularly wrong”? “The rise and fall of Rachida Dati,” her article was called. This month sees a new article headlined “The rise and fall of Rama Yade“. So what happened?

It was always going to be tricky. From the start there was the suspicion of tokenism. Amara was appointed Secretary of Urban Development to save the immigrant-inhabited ghettoized banlieues – but her ministry barely has a budget, and relies on the benevolent cooperation of more powerful ministries. Yade was appointed Junior Minister of Human Rights, a post which involves plenty of controversial issues but not many that government policies have a whole lot of leeway on, and one in which she is subservient to Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner. As Justice Minister, Dati is the most powerful of the three, but her close ties with Sarkozy as loyal ally and personal friend were always going to provide ammunition to those who wanted to belittle her merits for the job (it didn’t help that Sarko dubbed her “my Condi”).

The boldness of these top-level appointments was also doomed to stand in stark contrast with the festering problems in the suburbs, which Sarkozy’s much-vaunted Project Hope in the end tackled only half-heartedly (and that after an embarrassing false start which saw Amara’s initial plan panned by Sarkozy himself). In a poll of French people of African origin earlier this year, 79% said they thought it was a good thing Dati, Yade and Amara had been appointed, but 72% said that their presence in government had either changed nothing about discrimination in the country or actually made it worse.

The fate of the three politicians to some extent tells the story of the costs involved in being a pioneer. They have faced institutional resistance in their departments, both as self-declared reformers and as the outsiders their personal backgrounds made them. They have faced simmering resentment among Gaullist career politicians who felt they had been wrongly passed by – or worse, perhaps, that the women were simply out of place in these elevated circles. “Madame needs to remember where she is,” a Cabinet colleague snidely commented when Amara had been all too outspoken. Not least of all, they faced the relentless glare of media curiosity.

Rama Yade (Image used under CC license from Flickr user Ernest Morales)

Rama Yade (Image used under CC license from Flickr user Ernest Morales)

More ambivalently, the same qualities that made them succeed in making it from such unlikely circumstances are perhaps not the most suited for navigating the diplomacy of bureaucracy. Amara shocked her colleagues with her untrimmed opinions, for example when she announced in advance that she would not vote for Sarkozy in 2012. When necessary, she raised her peers’ putdowns of her with creative ones of her own: “La Castafiore”, she called one colleague who had chided her for being too impolitic. Dati in particular raised many hackles with her combative, strong-willed tactics and her inability to change course when she was set on something, no matter how authoritative or informed the objections that were raised. And now Rama Yade has gotten into trouble with her own refusal to back down, on a matter of principle involving Muammar Gaddafi’s recent visit to France, when challenged by both Sarkozy and Kouchner.

In an echo of Amara’s and Yade’s responses to Obama’s election – the system, not the public, is stopping a French Obama from getting to the top, said Yade, while Amara remarked that “the public is ready for a black president,” it’s just the political parties that are less so – opinion polls suggest that none of this has harmed their popularity with the public much. An opinion poll for Le Figaro this month shows Yade and Dati ranking second and fourth among 16 conservative and right-wing politicians as those whom people would most like to see play an important role in the coming months and years. In the list of 30 national politicians, Yade actually ranks in the top ten among both right-wing, centrist and left-wing voters. Dati mostly pleases the partisan base, ranking fourth among right-wing voters. In an Ipsos poll this month, meanwhile, Yade and Amara have the second and third-best net favourability rating on a list of thirty politicians.

It did, however, make all three collide with institutional interests, and not always without reason. All three also seem to have fallen out of favour with Sarkozy to some extent. The lack of governmental back-up for Dati even made former Prime Minister Raffarin rebuke his successor for not standing by his troops, and call for “the end of the hunt of Rachida” And that’s how we end up with two recent news stories with almost the same title.

The Daily Clarity chronicles The rise and fall of Rama Yade, outlining what happened last month. In short, when Gaddafi visited Paris, Yade declared that France should not do business with Libya unless it addressed human rights issues. She wasn’t backed up by Kouchner though, and her remarks displeased Sarkozy, who then encouraged her to run for the European Parliament, which would get her safely out of the way in Brussels; a suggestion Yade publicly rejected. “There seems little doubt that her statement will see her removed from office very shortly,” the Clarity predicts.

The Guardian, meanwhile, last month dug deeper into the story of Rachida Dati in The rise and fall of Rachida Dati. It tracks her impressive ascent and her glamorous image that made her “a French icon”. But it mixes in more than a hint of the tragic.

When she suddenly became part of Sarkozy’s inner circle, Dati basked in the high life — “She went on holiday with the couple to … the US. She appeared on the cover of a celebrity magazine on the arm of the Dior designer John Galliano. She posed in Dior dresses on the cover of Paris Match”. She still does not like to be reminded of her improbable rise. As much as she “hates being called the Cinderella of the housing estates,” however, her outsider position fuels her:

Dati was drawn to Sarkozy by his “rage”. “There’s something in me that echoes with him, a mirror effect. Like me, he can’t bear to be humiliated”.

The willpower she demonstrated throughout her life has been her strength but is now also her weakness. She is “perhaps not the easiest person to warm to” as a role model, she is “defensive,” “bristl[es] at critics”.

Rachida Dati and the revolting magistrates (Image under CC license from Flickr user François Briatte)

Rachida Dati and the revolting magistrates (Image under CC license from Flickr user François Briatte)

Consequently, her record as minister is decidedly mixed. She faces a rebellion by the country’s magistrates over “what they see as botched reforms” as well as “government interference in the independence of the judiciary” and “incoherent policies”.

Part of this is the stuff that any determined conservative would have been reproached for, perhaps rightly so; just because Dati is from a humble, minority background doesn’t mean she can’t be as wrong on the issues as any conservative. Moreover, the French justice system is in such a state of crisis that any minister, conservative or socialist, would have been overwhelmed with criticism.

Nevertheless, prison wardens have protested; “a succession of Dati’s advisers have quit”. Intergovernmental reports accuse French prisons of being dirty, degrading and inhumane, and there have been more than 90 suicides in prisons this year, yet Dati is accused of refusing to accept criticism:

“Dati [..] doesn’t listen to us,” said Christophe Régnard, a magistrate who leads the biggest union. “When you put things to her, she says simply, ‘No, that’s not true.’ When you say the Council of Europe has said it, she still says, ‘No, that’s not true.'”

Meanwhile, the celebrity press is all over her since she announced that she is pregnant with a child whose father she refuses to name. (“The former Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar, and the French junior sports minister and former rugby coach, Bernard Laporte, denied the child was theirs.”) After Sarkozy’s divorce from Cecilia and marriage with Carla Bruni, she was shut out of Sarkozy’s inner circle. “The Dati fairytale,” reporter Angelique Chrisafis concludes bombastically, “has started to go spectacularly wrong.”

Not, perhaps, the Justice Minister you’d like to have – even if she’s no worse than any number of conservative alternatives would have been. And yet, despite it all, as Chrisafis puts it, “her place in the French cabinet is undoubtedly a historic moment in the political life of a country still riven by racial discrimination”. One Sarkozy, for the part he played in it, deserves credit for as well. Just how much of a landmark is it? Talking about Obama’s election, Amara said: “It couldn’t happen in France unless Sarkozy turned emperor and appointed a black president himself”.


1 Comment

  1. Stuart  •  Dec 17, 2008 @6:47 pm

    Excellent article and a great summary of a very complex set of political mechanics. Thanks for pointing our article too! Keep up the great work.

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