Friday, August 3, 2007

Fadela Amara (Guest Post: Eloi Laurent)

Here, from Eloi Laurent, is the second in a series of biographies of "visible minorities" in power in various walks of French life. The first, devoted to Rama Yade, can be read here.

Education: “degree in office work,” “doctor honoris causa of the Université libre de Bruxelles and University of Manchester .” Fadela Amara, 43, the new junior minister for urban policy, whose Algerian father is a former construction worker whose writing skills amount to being able to sign his name, is now a prominent figure of the Republic, unconventional in many ways.

Born in France, near Clérmont-Ferrand, her parents, like those of Zinédine Zidane, arrived from Kabylie in 1955. In interviews she insists that she was not born in a “cité” (project), but more in a “bidonville” (shantytown). She was indeed raised in a small studio with her 10 brothers and sisters and other relatives in Herbet, a “transit project” later transformed into a “real project”. In the 1960s, the building of “tours,” “barres,” and “dalles” counted as major progress for hundreds of thousands of French industrial workers, many of whom were immigrants (among other things, it meant running water, electricity and heat). Now, those places have become a social trap for their offspring (but their destruction doesn’t go without nostalgia ).

In 1978, while 14, Amara witnessed the death of her five-year-old brother, run over by a car whose drunk driver was defended by policemen who responded to the scene. “This injustice put me in such a state of anger that I started to become socially active in my project immediately afterwards” (Interdépendances magazine, April 2005). This anger defines Amara more than anything.

Unlike Rama Yade and Rachida Dati, she did not build her career through French meritocracy, but in the buoyant realm of associations (a product of the 1901 Law). In 1983 she participated in the “Marche des beurs” and in 1986 formally joined SOS Racisme, where she met Malek Boutih, with whom she remains friends. In 2000, she became the President of the “Fédération nationale des maisons des potes” within the association, promoting not only anti-racism but also feminism, inspired by her own family situation, where men (father and brothers) dominated women (according to her, her mother has yet to obtain from her husband the right to get a driver’s licence).

This fight for immigrant women’s rights, started in SOS Racisme, led to the creation of the association “Ni Putes ni soumises” (“neither whores nor doormats”), or “NPNS”, as some media prefer to call it in order to avoid having to repeat “whores” every other line, which is precisely the aim of this provocative denomination.

The key belief of the association, which Amara defends as an observant Muslim, is that Islam is being instrumentalized in many “zones urbaines sensibles” in structural economic slump to keep women in inferior social status. In her appearance before the Stasi Commission on October 10 2003 on the Islamic veil, she claimed that “all rights” and “all liberties” had been “confiscated” from young girls living in cités, that the veil is a “tool of oppression” and that girls are often forced into wearing it by Muslim associations in the context of a “political instrumentalization of Islam” (the final Report of the Commission bore the mark of this testimony, see for instance p. 47). In another appearance before the Sénat in December 2003, she similarly denounced the “takeover of older brothers” in Muslim families in the context of mass unemployment.

“NPNS” was born in January 2002, when Amara organized the “Etats généraux des filles des quartiers,” which gathered about 300 young women to discuss the violence against women in French projects, such as arranged marriage and rape. The «Marche des femmes contre le ghetto et pour l'égalité », which she organized in the beginning of 2003, had « ni putes ni soumises » for motto, lasted 5 weeks and made stops in 23 cities. It symbolically started in the Cité Balzac of Vitry-sur-Seine, where the young Sohane Benziane was burned alive in October 2002 in a garbage room by a young man whose advances she spurned.

Amara’s passionate feminism has not been exempt from opposition and controversy. NPNS being mainly financed by public authorities (and well managed according to a Report of the Cour des Comptes not yet made public), some accuse the association of being the vector of a republican ideology targeting the Arab and Muslim community. In her opponents’ eyes, Amara helps to demonize young Arab men by reinforcing the worst media stereotypes concerning them. Some even accuse her of demonizing Islam itself, especially during the “veil” debate. Her critics are wrong on all three counts. She is the first to have shed some light on the undeniably difficult situation of many young women living in “cités”. She is an important voice against radical Islam and has often demonstrated physical courage in public meetings by confronting its representatives. She is finally an active and effective opponent of discrimination against visible minorities as a member of the Collège of the Haute Autorité de lutte contre les discriminations et pour l’égalité.

Yet accepting a role in the Sarkozy-Fillon government is a whole different matter, a fortiori because she serves under the direct command of the very Catholic and pro-life Christine Boutin, whose cabinet reflects her convictions. What is more, contrary to Rachida Dati (who could have been the Minister for Integration) or Rama Yade (who could have been the junior minister for Francophonie), she was given a post related to her origins, like Kofi Yamgnane under Mitterrand, and more recently, Azouz Begag under Chirac (who made that clear by giving his violently anti-Sarkozy book the provocative title Un Mouton dans la Baignoire).

Amara’s personal relationship with Sarkozy is certainly the key to her nomination, and he has obviously forgiven her acid reaction to his infamous “racaille” line (the true story of which can be found here); last year, she published La Racaille de la République (with Mohammed Abdi).

There are two stories about Amara’s nomination, without a doubt the most unexpected of all. The first, as in the case of Bernard Kouchner and Jean-Marie Bockel, has to do with her PS affiliation, since she was elected a “Conseillère municipale” in her hometown of Clermont-Ferrand under the PS label in 2001 (she still is apparently, under the name Fatiha Amara). To justify her willingness to join a government of the right, she accused the left of having “lost its soul” and left behind “suffering ghettos” in the Nouvel Observateur.

But the second story is even more important, as it deals with her association. Some disappointed members of NPNS created the blog NPNS en colère to voice their anger at Amara’s nomination: “the shock is violent, the wound is deep, the disappointment is immense,” they write. But NPNS as such, after what seems to have been a tumultuous meeting, issued a brief communiqué on June 23, “acknowledging” the nomination of Amara, adding that within the association “some were shocked, while others were pleasantly surprised” by her nomination, and finally thanking “Fadéla” for “opening the way”. Mohammed Abdi, general secretary of the movement and now special adviser to Amara, can be heard justifying the move in a rather chaotic edition of the France Culture program Du Grain à Moudre (he also accuses opponents of “islamo-gauchisme”). It is worth noting that the nomination of Martin Hirsch, the former President of Emmaüs, to the Sarkozy-Fillon government, went much more smoothly, although it poses many of the same questions.

Because of their demographic weight, their economic role in French reconstruction and the ever open wound of the Algerian war, French Arabs and Muslims bear a greater resemblance to African-Americans than do French Blacks themselves. It might thus be tempting to draw a parallel between Amara and Sarkozy on the one hand and Martin Luther King and LBJ, before their irreparable split over the Vietnam war. One could go further and compare attacks on Amara by Les Indigènes de la République to attacks by Malcolm X on MLK : "Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in the way." (Or think of Marcus Garvey on W. E. B. Dubois). Actually, Amara says she “can’t stand the ‘Indigènes de la République’”, because, contrary to true indigenous peoples, members of visible minorities in France “have the right to protest, to act and to vote”.

Amara chose early in her life to act resolutely upon these rights. Today, at the culmen of this choice, she faces the inescapable dilemma between the comfort of ideals and the corruption of power. This will be the key to Amara’s mandate, which she could abruptly end if she feels betrayed or betraying. “I accepted because I was assured that my freedom of speech will be respected”, “I came to get my hands dirty to build a true urban policy” she said to Le Monde. “The believer in an ethic of ultimate ends feels 'responsible' only for seeing to it that the flame of pure intentions is not quenched” says Weber in 'Politik als Beruf,'.

The crucial question is thus what will she (be able to) do with this power. At the top of her agenda is certainly the imperative to improve the life of the 5 million people living in the 751 French ZUS, which include the cité in which she was born, Herbet (n° 410). Her first action is the “For my city” campaign, which aims at consulting citizens before building an ambitious urban plan. In the ongoing first part of this campaign, she has just launched two blogs, one for the youngsters (on the very popular platform of Skyrock radio) and the other one for the rest of us. There is not yet much to read in those pages, but one cannot help noting that Amara is visibly more comfortable on videos in the first blog.

In fact, Le Monde reports that at the end of her first day of work as a Minister of the Republic, as she was heading for the subway station, Amara was shown to her official blue Citroën (C6). “Riding the subway, it’s over for me?” she quipped.

-- contributed by Eloi Laurent


Mary said...

Well researched and thought-provoking. These profiles are excellent, many thanks.

I'm interested and surprised by the remark that the population of North African origin in France shares more with African-Americans than the black population. It's perhaps worth noting that as "Francais musulmans" they also had official second-class citizen status until decolonization. But it seems to me that it is the black population, through the emergence of movements like the CRAN (Conseil representatif des associations noires) that draws more explicitly on the model of the US civil rights movement.

In a recent interview that Boutin gave to the "Itinerant" (the magazine produced by and for the homeless) it actually looked like she has a lot of common ground with Amara, as long as they stick to housing policy...

Eloi Laurent said...

Dear Mary, thanks a lot for your great comments and questions. Let me try to answer the best I can.

My point about French Blacks and African-Americans is of course arguable and should be nuanced. I think that historically and symbolically, for the reasons I give, the point holds. But politically, in the current period, you are right (although one shouldn't forget that there is no such thing for the time being as "A French Black community", there are many, but that's another story). I agree that the CRAN leaders revere and refer to MLK and the civil rights movement. They even invited Dennis Hayes, Myrlie Evers-Williams and Angela Ciccolo from the NAACP last April and organized a conference by Clayborne Carson last May .

Yet, in this post (, Patrick Lozès, who co-founded the CRAN, reflects on the difference between Af-Ams and French Blacks. But what he says at the very end could also probably apply to French Arabs (I partly agree with your implicit correction of my "French Arabs and Muslims" label, which is far too general; "French Muslims" is acceptable with the qualification of the following paragraph; "French Arabs" may sound strange or even dangerous, but don't you think that this ever-lasting suspicious "Arab origin" is also problematic? We wouldn't say "French of Italian origin", would we?).

By the way, the question of religion is precisely where the two communities meet since, as you know, many Blacks living in France (French and foreigners) are also Muslims.

Finally, you are right that Boutin is something of a social Catholic, and as such share some important values with Amara the activist. But I hope, for the sake of this hybrid Minister, that the issue of abortion does not come their way...

Arthur Goldhammer said...

For more on Boutin as "social Catholic," see these earlier posts:


Eloi Laurent said...

I wanted to, but I realize now I forgot to mention in the post that the book Amara wrote with Sylvia Zappi "Ni putes ni soumises" (Paris, La Découverte, 2003) has been translated into English last year by Helen Harden Chenut under the title "Breaking the Silence: French Women’s Voices from the Ghetto" (University of California Press) :

Mary said...

Dear Eloi,
Thank you for clarifying your remarks. You are right of course that "a" French black community does not exist - one of the interesting things about the CRAN is the way that it produces one as a corollary of its anti-discrimination strategy. The emergence (or otherwise) or a unified Black identity in France would be an interesting topic for further research (if indeed it is not already being done).

With regard to labels, yes my terminology was an implicit correction and I agree it is by no means perfect. I have yet to come across terminology with which I really feel comfortable, in itself indicative of the difficulty of these issues in French politics. I have seen the term 'postmigrants' used (as opposed to 2nd or 3rd generation) by the sociologist Nadia Kiwan, for example, but I'm not sure this resolves the issues you raise. "French Muslims" is particularly troublesome because of its colonial usage and the way it is used to designate a population that may share cultural practices but not necessarily religious beliefs (if the 'mainstream' white population was designated 'French Catholics' people would be outraged, and rightly so). Yet if one feels that the problems currently experienced by this population can to some degree be attributed to the history of colonialism and immigration then it is not unreasonable, I feel to use the geographical label. The reason we don't refer to French people of Italian origin is because we don't refer to them collectively at all, because, rightly or wrongly, they are no longer perceived as either culturally distinctive or socially and economically disadvantaged. If, for whatever reason I wanted to test this hypothesis I would certainly refer to them as "French people of Italian origin", which, incidentally is how one of my friends, born in France of Italian parents refers to himself when asked about his background.