Rama Yade Rises As a Symbol Of Integration
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.
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
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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