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

Molletisme: A Little History

Another "rétrocontroverse" column in Le Monde looks back at the debate over retirement reform since 1990. It's interesting, in particular, to recall the Socialist response to the Fillon reform of 2003. Five economists close to the PS denounced the party's "demagogic" approach and, after comparing Fillon's bill to the Socialists' own proposals in 2002, concluded that had the PS been in power, it would have enacted a very similar measure. Michel Rocard compared the party's attitude to that of the Socialists under Guy Mollet in his youth, when the party spoke "a double language and therefore inevitably disappointed" its electorate by promising more than it could deliver. This "sapped the voters' confidence in the Party's action. It would be better to avoid making this mistake again."

That is about as succinct a diagnosis of what has been wrong with the PS as one could wish for.

"The Munich of the Republican School"

Le Monde's "rétrocontroverses" column today reminds us that the headscarf controversy has been raging since 1989. Régis Debray, Alain Finkielkraut, and Elisabeth Badinter were among the signers of a petition protesting "the Munich of the Republican school." The controversy of course continues, its vehemence scarcely diminished--a reminder of how glacial social and cultural change can be.

Is Sarko Running for US Pres?

With the news that Pres. Sarkozy will vacation in Wolfeboro, NH, on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, the question is, "Is he planning to run in the New Hampshire primary?" In which party?

I've vacationed in New Hampshire myself quite a few times, and if I'd been asked, I would have recommended one of the smaller lakes farther north and west. But Winnipesaukee is closer to the population centers, not to mention Kennebunkport, so maybe Sarko plans to give an interview to the Union Leader or go fishing with W. Locals are wondering if he'll ride the "Trolley named Molly" or buy a souvenir T-shirt. Or will it be dinner at Mise en Place or lunch at the Full Belli Delli?