French Minister's Star Status Holds Political Promise

Rama Yade Rises As a Symbol Of Integration

Rama Yade, 32, junior minister for youth and sports, was born in Senegal and raised in a Paris suburb. Aides say she is thinking of running for an office that would give her a political foothold. She will be in Washington this week. (By Thibault Camus -- Associated Press)

Washington Post Foreign Service

LYON, France -- The photographer insisted on telling her

how to pose. A television soundman thrust his microphone

toward her face while behind him the intruding camera rolled.

A knot of bystanders, meanwhile, edged in for

a close-up look and opened fire with cellphone snapshots.

"Please, could you back away a little?

I would like to be alone for a bit," pleaded Rama Yade,

France's junior minister for youth and sports and, at 32,

one of the most popular political personalities in the country.

The recoil from pop-star treatment during a recent visit to Lyon,

in eastern France, was a rare moment of hesitation

in Yade's swift rise to fame and political fortune.

Only nine years after graduating from the prestigious

Paris Institute of Political Sciences, Yade has become

more than a minister.

She has become a phenomenon: black, Muslim,

female -- and one of the brightest stars

in President Nicolas Sarkozy's political constellation.

Along with two women of North African Arab descent

also named to the government, Yade's main mission

when she was appointed in May 2007 was

to embody Sarkozy's effort to bring minorities

into positions of responsibility.

But with her good looks and impudence -- qualities

French people cherish -- she has ended up

two years later not only as a poster girl for

integration but also as a politician with her

own support and the promise of

a career on the national stage.

"There is not just the image; there is

also substance," said Lyon Mayor Gérard Collomb

of the opposition Socialist Party.

Collomb, only half-joking, added that he had told

Yade over lunch that he would find a place for her

in the local government or parliamentary representation

if she wanted to jump ship from Sarkozy's neo-Gaullist

coalition and run for office in Lyon.

At a forum here on the role of sports in forming

good citizens, however, Yade cited

Charles de Gaulle in advocating the need

to cultivate athletes capable of bringing

glory to France.

She rolled off statistics on the number of jobs

that would be created by building more stadiums.

But most of all, she walked around shaking hands,

signing autographs and being photographed. 

Conscious of her status as a neophyte, Yade
tried loyally to play her assigned role, that of
conscientious minister with a Hillary-style pantsuit
and a relentless schedule.
"I'm not here pushing an image," she told reporters
following her travels. "I'm doing my job."

Reminded that she was constantly accosted

like a rock star, she smiled and

replied: "I can't observe myself.

I am an actor, not an observer."

The Yade act will be on tour this week in Washington,

where aides said the young minister has

been invited to attend the Congressional

Black Caucus Foundation's annual legislative


President Obama is likely to attend, they added,

inviting a comparison with the U.S. leader

whose charisma, like Yade's, seems

to eclipse racial considerations.

Yade's ascension to stardom was not foreordained,

however, in a country where politics traditionally

are as exclusive as a London gentlemen's club.

Born Mame Ramatoulaye Yade in Senegal, West Africa,

Yade was brought up on a tight budget by

her immigrant mother in the Paris suburb of Colombes.

Her father, a diplomat and professor,

by then had gone his own way.

The young girl was educated at a Roman

Catholic secondary school and, after

a tough entrance exam, entered the Institute

of Political Sciences for her launch toward fame.

After several years as a staff assistant

in the Senate, she joined Sarkozy's Union

for a Popular Movement, telling acquaintances

she admired his proposals for

positive discrimination to advance France's growing

black and Arab populations.

When Sarkozy was formally named

the party's presidential candidate in January 2007,

Yade gained celebrity with a conservative-oriented

speech in which she castigated the opposition

Socialist Party as the creator

of a "service-window republic" in which

immigrant children got "pity instead of respect."

About the same time her star began to rise

in the party, Yade married Joseph Zimet,

a high-level bureaucrat and the son

of a well-known Yiddish singer.

Along with Rachida Dati, the daughter

of Algerian immigrants, Yade emerged as

a media star during the 2007 presidential campaign.

When Sarkozy was elected, Dati was named

justice minister and Yade was plopped down

in the previously nonexistent post of junior minister

for human rights under Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

During the same year, Yade published her first book,

"Blacks of France," in which she analyzed the place

in French society occupied by African

immigrants' children and other French blacks.

It reminded people that, despite her own swift rise

in a conservative movement,

Yade carried the heritage of a black woman

in a predominantly white society.

As a girl, aides recalled, Yade pinned posters

of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and

Michael Jordan in her room. Later,

she collected press clippings of Obama's voyage

to the White House, and she told French reporters

after his election that she was "penetrated"

by the history of American blacks and civil rights.

Soon after assuming her new job, Yade's refusal

to submit to authority became an issue,

rubbing fellow officials the wrong way but

drawing favorable attention from the public.

Sarkozy, seeking political and economic gains,

invited Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to Paris.

Yade boycotted official functions,

saying Gaddafi should be made to understand

"our country is not a doormat on which a leader,

terrorist or not, can come wipe the blood

of his deeds off his feet."

Kouchner, who helped found Doctors Without Borders

and had made a career of promoting human rights,

swiftly became irritated at Yade's refusal to play

by traditional Foreign Ministry rules.

On last year's Human Rights Day, he told

an interviewer that creating Yade's post

was a mistake, and according to aides,

his complaints were among the reasons

Sarkozy recently eliminated the position.

Yade also refused Sarkozy's exhortation to run

in elections for the European Parliament,

letting it be known she regarded the European

Parliament as a political parking lot and

wanted instead to run for the French

National Assembly.

Against that background, many commentators

expressed surprise to see Yade named

junior minister for youth and sports in a government

reshuffle in June in which Dati and others departed.

According to Le Point magazine, Yade responded

by handing a note to Sarkozy during the first

government meeting, saying, "Mr. President.

One word: thanks!"

Despite her second chance in government,

Yade has yet to prove herself as a candidate

in a significant election, which aides acknowledge

is an obligatory next step.

She was elected last year on

a government-coalition list to the council

of her former home town of Colombes.

But now, aides said, she is contemplating running

for an office that would give her a political foothold

and allow her to transcend the role

of Sarkozy's television-friendly integration symbol.

In that, she has a way to go.

As Yade walked down a platform to board

a train for Paris, for example, heads turned

and many travelers pointed in her direction,

recognizing the showcase minister.

A tall black man, asked if he knew who she was,

replied, "Yes, that's Rachida Dati."

Told he was wrong, he said,

"Oh, yeah, it's the other one."

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