Perfect Casting Sarkozy's Gender Revolution

New French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to shake up and renew France when he took office. And he started with his cabinet, which includes 11 women -- three of them from minority backgrounds.

By in Paris


France's newly appointed Justice Minister Rachida Dati, and Rama Yade, new junior minister for human rights.
AP

France's newly appointed Justice Minister Rachida Dati, and Rama Yade, new junior minister for human rights.

What a fireworks of energy French President Nicolas Sarkozy is capable of displaying in a single week.

The second round of parliamentary elections had hardly even finished and his governing party had barely had a chance to digest its weakening at the polls when Sarkozy presented his reshuffled cabinet to photographers on the steps of Elysee Palace last Wednesday. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the marginalized leader of the far-right Front National, then showed up for a tete-a-tete, and the next day Socialist Party presidential candidate Segolene Royal did the same. Parliamentarians from his own Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party were also invited to the palace. Then Sarkozy appeared before the cameras in his ostentatious office.

"You can stay on the most comfortable part of your anatomy and watch the trains go by," he said, explaining his new political philosophy to the people. "But I have been elected to get things moving everywhere." The "hyper-president" (as French daily Le Figaro has dubbed him) was not joking when he announced a break with the outdated traditions of the Fifth Republic.

What could exemplify this better than Sarkozy's appearance alongside the stars of the new French cabinet -- Rachida Dati, Rama Yade and Fadela Amara -- last week?

They're women, they're from minority backgrounds and they're feminists. Until recently, those weren't exactly trump cards for someone striving to build a political career in France, even less so when they were trying to build that career in the conservative UMP party.

Still, a woman from the Maghreb region of North Africa is now in charge of the Justice Ministry on Place Vendôme, a woman born in Senegal is responsible for human rights issues in the Foreign Ministry on the Quai d'Orsay and a woman of Algerian descent is to henceforth devote herself to the socially disadvantaged in the banlieues, the suburbs that have been the site of so much unrest in recent years. Dati, Yade and Amara: These names are the first indications that the promise of a "Sarkozy revolution" is being kept.

The irony is, of course, that during the presidential election campaign it was Sarkozy's Socialist rival Royal who grabbed everyone's attention as the embodiment of changed gender roles and as the obvious favorite of female voters. She was the one who called for sexual equality and the integration of ethnic minorities in a "colorful, diverse France." What Royal never mentioned was that for decades the left had failed to even put an end to ethnic discrimination within its own ranks.

Now, just four weeks after the new president took office, the astounded Socialists are witnessing how a group of women no one paid much attention to before are becoming symbolic figures in Prime Minister Francois Fillon's new cabinet. They serve as trademarks of Sarkozy's "policy of openness," whereby the top man in Elysee Palace wants to bring about a radical all-around renewal of the nation.

One-Third of Cabinet Are Women

In order to achieve this, Sarkozy put together a diverse, 33-person cabinet: Almost a fifth of the ministers come from the left, and one-third are women. Sarkozy gave prominent Socialist Party member Bernard Kouchner the position of foreign minister and he managed to woo five other left-wing politicians into his cabinet by offering them high-ranking positions, while a politician from the political center was put in charge of the Defense Ministry.

Giving high-powered women prestigious positions such as those of interior minister, economics minister and education minister gives Sarkozy the aura of being a pioneer for equal opportunities. At the same time he has pleased the arch-conservative Christian camp by including a woman noted for her anti-abortion views in his cabinet. Thinking of the country's sports enthusiasts, the president even asked national rugby trainer Bernard Laporte to join his team as junior sports minister -- though the larger than life personality will only take office following the world championships in the fall.

A "policy of openness"? What the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung characterized as a "pretty risky personalization of his style of government" is a calculated strategy used by Sarkozy to secure power for himself. The non-partisan distribution of offices to members of a Socialist Party without significant power in parliament provided the head of state with almost unlimited authority -- one who openly describes himself as "a president who wants to govern."

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy poses with the female members of his new cabinet.
AFP

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy poses with the female members of his new cabinet.

His luckiest stroke in assembling the cabinet was probably his selection of the appealing trio of women. Dati as minister of justice is an ideal choice. The 41-year-old, a child of Moroccan and Algerian immigrants, built a career as a judge before achieving success as Sarkozy's spokeswoman. The president appointed her "so that no child in our suburbs will doubt that there is only one justice in France, the same for all."

The president has another highly valuable colleague in Amara. The outspoken left-wing politician has been active in the struggle against racism and discrimination: She is known across the nation as the founder of the organization "Neither Whores nor Subordinated" (Ni Putes Ni Soumises), which helps Muslim girls. A Muslim herself, she will be responsible for the crumbling suburban fringes of France's major cities.

"Beautiful, black, young" -- that's how French daily Le Parisien describes the attributes of Yade, who -- barely 30 years old -- has been made the State Secretary for Human Rights by Sarkozy. She was born in Dakar, and is the daughter of a diplomatic advisor to Senegalese President Léopold Senghor and a history teacher, and she grew up on the outskirts of Paris. Disappointed by the Socialist Party, the political scientist offered her services to the conservative UMP Party. There, she made her career overnight after delivering a terrific speech in front of 80,000 UMP followers at the beginning of Sarkozy's electoral campaign. She then acquitted herself with elegance and eloquence in discussion forums and TV appearances. Nevertheless her appointment to the foreign ministry last week was still seen as a small sensation.

There is no doubt that the rise of these women has been to the advantage of the president as well. Still notorious for his provocative language, and denounced as a demagogue and for his comments about foreigners and immigrants, this "Sarkozy Nouveau" is suddenly appearing as the father of the nation, even as the champion of republican egalité. "He tries to bring the government and the governed closer to each other," writes the left-wing Libération, which praises him for the fact that "the leadership of France increasingly reflects the colorful diversity of the people."

According to Sarkozy's close friends, he views his female team of ministers as a particularly successful coup, and is above all proud of the first steps of his colleagues from minority backgrounds. "When I saw Rachida Dati in the Superior Council of the Judiciary on her red chair, a woman amongst all those men, I was moved," the president said.

He complimented Yade on being like a "wild horse," and then gave her an even greater compliment. "There are only two black women on the international stage," he said. "The American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Rama Yade."

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