French Minister Rama Yade's Stardom Holds Political Promise

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.
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)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

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 GĂ©rard 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 conference. 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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