France Sees Unprecedented Diversity in Leadership

New French President Nicolas Sarkozy has appointed three women of African descent to his Cabinet. In France, where even second and third generation minorities have struggled to to get a foothold in French society, the decision was unprecedented and to some astonishing. Susan Sachs, a Paris-based correspondent, explains the significance of the appointments.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, women taking the lead on the basketball court. But first, it's time for Dispatches, where we turn to reporters around the globe. Today we're going to Paris. New French President Nicolas Sarkozy has appointed three women of African descent to his cabinet. In the U.S., where two successive secretaries of state have been minorities, that news might have considered interesting and worthy of a feature story or two. But in France, where even second and third-generation minorities from immigrant backgrounds have struggle to get a foothold in French society, the decision was unprecedented and to some astonishing. But do these visible roles truly signal change from minorities in France?

To talk about all this we turn to Susan Sachs. She is the Paris-based correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and she joins us by phone from her home office. Susan, welcome. Ms. SUSAN SACHS (Correspondent, Christian Science Monitor): Thank you.

MARTIN: Susan, how diverse is France?

Ms. SACHS: Well, France is actually much more diverse than probably most people who come as visitors would realize. France is a former colonial power, and so they've had a continuous stream of immigrants from those places since the early part of last century. So they probably represent about 10 percent of the population. So put them together, it's probably about eight million people out of a little bit over 60 million.

MARTIN: So that would be - that's about what?

Ms. SACHS: Oh, just a little over 10 percent.

MARTIN: A little over 10 percent of the population is of color, let's say.

Ms. SACHS: Right.

MARTIN: Do they feel welcome in France?

Ms. SACHS: I think it depends on what generation you're talking about. People who are young people today, who are either immigrants themselves or the children or grandchildren of those immigrants who came in the '50s when France was in this post-war building boom and economic boom and they welcomed immigrants to come in as laborers in the factories, those older people felt that France was exactly as it presents itself to be, a place for the equality of justice of brotherhood. But over the years, there's definitely been ghettoization of minorities. I think for the younger generation they saw that there wasn't really no social mobility.

MARTIN: Why is there not this mobility?

Ms. SACHS: In a large way, they remained an under class in terms of economic resources, and it reflects in a way the way society is structured here. It's unlike in, say, the United States or even Britain where the school system can be a way to get your foot on the ladder.

The school system here is built as kind of a pyramid, an inverted pyramid. And from a very relatively early age, kids are channeled into certain either trades or professions. And you go - as you advance through your school years, you are kind of shuttled off into certain kinds of schools and those who remain kind of at the end when they get to the university stage, even though the universities are open to all, you don't get into the prestigious universities, you don't get into the specialty universities or the specialty faculties. So they're off the ladder.

MARTIN: So there's a sense that it's just too hard to get into the mainstream of society, that the vehicles by which people get in in this country, mainly through education, that just isn't available, or it isn't - it just doesn't seem to be working that way.

Ms. SACHS: It doesn't work.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. SACHS: It doesn't work. And I think it's created a sense - and you hear this even from these three women who have just been appointed to the government, they say the same thing.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about those three women if we can. Let's talk about Sarkozy's first appointment, Rachida Dati as justice minister. Tell me about her and tell me why this is such an important appointment.

Ms. SACHS: Rachida Dati is a great example of what Sarkozy likes to talk about of as the ideal French meritocracy. But from descriptions from her friends and her family, she was a woman who determined very early on that she was going to get out of her little ghetto area.

She didn't grow up in Paris. She grew in Emor(ph) in the Burgundy area, one of 12 children in a family with a mother who was Algerian, father who was from Morocco, mother was illiterate. Rachida was the first of their children born in France and was sent to a private Catholic school where she sort of surprised the nuns by introducing the Koran into her catechism class. And she became very adept at networking and managed to get herself introduced to well-known people, well-known people in business and in politics, and created a circle of patrons in a way. She has been very close to Sarkozy. She's probably of all the government ministers one of the most close in a personal way with him.

And she represents, I think, in his view and in the view of many people who are minority activists, a wonderful model of somebody who sort of said to herself nothing is closed to me, I can go through any door.

MARTIN: So, in a way, she's like - this is not a close analogy because there are differences, I mean, obviously a number of differences. But in a way it's a little like Condoleezza Rice in this country. Was her appointment meant as a symbol to the North African immigrant community?

Ms. SACHS: Absolutely. Absolutely. She had been before he was elected president, when he was still minister of interior, she was Sarkozy's liaison, if you will, to some of the most troubled of the suburbs, those that had erupted in late 2005 in riots that spread across France and lasted for a good three weeks.

MARTIN: We're talking with Susan Sachs, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, about some groundbreaking appointments to the new French cabinet.

Rachida Dati is not the only new appointment with an immigrant background. Rama Yade is of Senegalese descent and she's the junior minister for human rights. And the other is Fadela Amara whose parents are from Algeria. Would you tell me about them, and what is the significance of their jobs?

Ms. SACHS: Rama Yade is now a junior minister with the charge of human rights. She has been active in administration. She's worked for the French Senate. She's someone who is meant as a signal perhaps to Africa and to, in Sarkozy's point of view, to those African countries that are senders of immigrants to France. She is meant, I think, as a signal that we're interested in helping you do some development there so that, in fact, France won't be such a magnet for your people to come here.

In terms of the third person, Fadela Amara, it's a very interesting appointment. She's best known in France for having been one of the founders of the group formed in the suburbs mainly to advocate on behalf of Muslim women in the ghettos against forced marriage, honor killings, genital mutilation, domestic violence. And it was active in supporting the French law that was passed a few years ago that prohibited the veil, schoolgirls wearing the veil in public school. She's now the junior minister in charge of urban policy. She has been very closely associated with the Socialist Party, which is the opposition party to Mr. Sarkozy. And it'll be…

MARTIN: So that's interesting. So, in a way, he's reaching across party lines to offer her this appointment.

Ms. SACHS: He's been doing that a lot. Yes, he's been talking about that as an opening. Those cynics on the left see it more as his trying to neutralize the opposition. But, in any case, what he has produced, at least in these early stages of his presidency, is probably the most diverse government that France has ever had.

MARTIN: Briefly, Susan, if you could tell us, how are these appointments being received.

Ms. SACHS: Well, they're being profiled in front-page stories, and there's a lot of self-congratulatory kind of tone in these stories of look how wonderful we really are, an open society we really are.

The only one of the three who has had sort of her initiation of fire has been Rachida Dati, the justice minister, who's pushed through successfully the new laws on criminal justice that Mr. Sarkozy had promised during his campaign. The others we have yet to see what they'll be able to do and what their goals might be.

MARTIN: Let's just briefly, Susan, talk about cultural figures. In, you know, as we know in this society in the U.S., cultural figures sometimes get acceptance before political figures do. And I wanted to ask, are there any cultural figures who a broad swath of French society appreciates, enjoys, that you would like to talk to us about?

Ms. SACHS: There are quite a few people in music and in sports, which I guess is a sort of traditional trajectory. You've got quite a few who've broken into sort of the French consciousness through music. One of the most popular musicians now is a French rapper who has got a philosophy degree named Abd al Malik.

MARTIN: Is that right? A philosophy degree?

Ms. SACHS: Yes.

MARTIN: I understand he's of Congolese descent.

Ms. SACHS: Yes.

MARTIN: And why do people like him?

Ms. SACHS: He's good.

MARTIN: Oh, let's hear a little bit.

Ms. SACHS: He's good.

MARTIN: We've got a song from him. It's called "Gibraltar."

(Soundbite of song, "Gibraltar")

Mr. ABD AL MALIK (Rapper): (Rapping) (French Spoken)

MARTIN: Translation please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SACHS: He's talking about young blacks in France.

(Soundbite of song, "Gibraltar")

Mr. MALIK: (Rapping) (French Spoken)

MARTIN: Translation, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SACHS: He's talking about young blacks in France.

MARTIN: Okay. Do you think he might be coming to a Tower Records near us?

Ms. SACHS: I think so.

MARTIN: All right. Thank you, Susan.

Ms. SACHS: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Susan Sachs is a Paris correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. She joined us from her home office by phone. Susan, thanks so much.

Ms. SACHS: You're welcome.

MARTIN: We're going to end this segment with a little bit more from Abd Al Malik - his song, "Gibraltar."

(Soundbite of song, "Gibraltar")

Mr. MALIK: (Rapping) (French Spoken)

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