Minister Takes On France’s Projects

Minister Takes on France's Projects

Associated Press
January 23, 2008

VAULX-EN-VELIN, France (AP) Nothing about Fadela Amara is cut from the mold.

France's junior minister for urban affairs has no high school diploma, routinely shocks the establishment with her use of slang and scorn of protocol and insists on living in her old, no-frills apartment instead of the elegant quarters normally granted to French government members.

She talks back to her bosses, and when touring troubled housing projects, the daughter of Algerian immigrants breaks into Arabic with residents whose French is weak.

Tuesday was meant to be Amara's big day, the unveiling of a key part of President Nicolas Sarkozy's vision for France: a so-called Marshall Plan for suburban housing projects, which exploded in a three-week burst of anger in November 2005.

Sarkozy stole his minister's thunder deciding to announce the plan himself next month and paying a rare visit to a working class suburb Monday night.

But he has not dented her determination to attack the ills plaguing France's housing projects and bring their residents, many of them Arab or black children or grandchildren of immigrants long cloistered in blight, into the mainstream. Overcoming these ills is seen as key to France's future prosperity, and while past government plans have failed to do so, Amara hopes to be the one to break that pattern.

She was applauded like a rock star at a forum in Vaulx-en-Velin, a rough suburb of Lyon. Some 1,500 people, from association leaders to teachers and project youth, packed a hall where she laid out her proposals.

“We cannot continue like this. We cannot be satisfied with pasting, plastering and urgent Band-Aids,” she said in her speech.

What is needed, Amara told them, is a policy “that fits with the France of today … a mixed-race republic proud of its diversity.”

Employment, education and transport are the plan's themes, for an overall price tag, she has said, of $1.43 billion. All three are considered key to overcoming the discrimination, alienation and physical isolation that helped fuel the 2005 riots and other suburban unrest around France over the years.

“I believe in this, even if it is the zillionth plan,” said Martial Zibi, a 30-year-old unemployed college graduate from Bordeaux. He was among a handful of people invited to meet with Amara based on ideas he posted on the minister's blog.

“I think things can really move with someone like Fadela Amara,” said Claude Pommelet, an unemployed 21-year-old from the northern city of Le Havre.

Vaulx-en-Velin, where riots in 1990 led to the appointment of France's first urban affairs minister, is emblematic of suburban ills ills Amara knows firsthand.

She was born into project life outside Clermont-Ferrand in central France, one of 10 children. A racist remark by a police officer after her 5-year-old brother was fatally struck by a car propelled Amara into her activist pursuit of justice. An elder brother, meanwhile, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for murder, according to a profile of her on France-2 television.

The slightly disheveled 43-year-old is one of a few Cabinet members with origins in France's former African colonies, including Justice Minister Rachida Dati and Human Rights Minister Rama Yade, but the only one who loudly, and proudly, proclaims her roots. Each was appointed by the conservative Sarkozy as part of his campaign promise of a “rupture” with the past.

With Amara, a leftist at heart, he may have got more than he bargained for.

She recently said she wouldn't necessarily vote for Sarkozy in the next presidential election in 2012. Amara had public differences earlier this month with her boss, Housing Minister Christine Boutin.

“I'm under the orders of no one,” Amara told France-2.

Even some suburban associations have said she should clean up her harsh language. ACLeFeu, a group born of the 2005 rioting that started in Clichy-Sous-Bois, outside Paris, said she is “stigmatizing” project youth with her slang.

“When a minister allows herself a certain behavior and vocabulary, she is not an example for youth,” said Mohamed Mechmache, president of ACLeFeu.

Amara founded an association in 2003, “Neither Whore Nor Doormat,” to help women from the projects, often Muslim, free themselves from family-bred stereotypes. It rose to become a major organization and made her a national figure despite, or perhaps because of, her unconventional style.