PARIS — Significant moments in Rama Yade’s tenure as a junior minister for human rights have been known to gall her superiors and provoke both scorn and admiration from the public. But they also showcase her candor.
Yade did not mince words when she told a French newspaper in December 2007 that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was a guest of President Nicolas Sarkozy, “must understand that our country is not a doormat on which a leader, terrorist or not, can come to wipe the blood of his crimes off his feet.”
Months later, Le Monde quoted Yade as saying that in order for Sarkozy to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing, China would have to meet certain “conditions,” including dialogue with Tibet. She quickly backed away from the remarks, claiming the word “conditions” was not used during the interview after Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner intervened to clarify.
Yade’s boldest move yet has been refusing a presidential request that she run for a seat in Parliament because she said she was “motivated more by a national mandate than a European mandate.”
“For her, it wasn’t the time,” said Faycal Douhane, a member of the Socialist party’s national council who has known Yade for four years, ever since they were both activists in a network that promotes equal opportunity and French diversity and whose founding members included Rachida Dati, now the Justice Minister. “That’s courage, knowing how to say no.”
Sarkozy expressed his disappointment with Yade’s decision in December and Kouchner, who is her immediate boss, publicly stated that perhaps creating the post of junior minister for human rights was a mistake. Their reactions fueled concern that Yade may not survive another government reshuffle, which could come as early as next month after the results of the elections. Michel Barnier, the Minister of Agriculture and Dati are leading the list of candidates for Sarkozy’s UMP party.
Douhane said Yade, 33, was essentially maligned for doing her job when she spoke out against human rights violators like Gaddafi and China. “Her role is to speak to out,” he said. Her choosing not to run in the Parliament elections was her way of putting her country and Europe ahead of empty political ambitions, he added.
“When she has an idea, she fights to put it forward no matter the difficulties,” Douhane said. “She takes positions even when they are not popular.”
Yade’s style seems to be resonating more with a public that once called her naive. An estimated 67 percent of 964 French adults surveyed in May said they had a favorable opinion of her, according to a poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion. She rates third among favored politicians after Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe and former President Jacques Chirac. “It proves that the French appreciate her work,” Douhane said.
Yade is traveling this week, representing France at top-level meetings in South East Asia, at the ASEM meetings in Vietnam and the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia. A statement from her office said that human rights would be a subject at those meetings, notably the situation in Burma. She was expected to reiterate France’s position and press for the release of political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Despite her inexperience, Sarkozy appointed the Senegal-born and France-educated Yade to the newly created post, catapulting her to the national stage at age 31. She was an unlikely candidate for his right-wing UMP government given that she hails from a left-leaning diplomatic family. But it was specifically Sarkozy’s energy that attracted her to the party, Yade said.
Her appointment as the only high-level black member of the government was a wake-up call to the Socialists that they were not doing enough to diversify their ranks, some observers have said.
Speaking to reporters in April, Yade said she was confronted with a lot of questions when she was first tapped to be a minister from people who wondered why she was not handling interior matters, like immigration. Her job was created with an international focus, she told the audience, though she has on occasion overstepped her boundaries and intervened in some national matters.
She has said that she would like continue in government, specifically to participate in regional elections in 2010 in the well-to-do region near where she grew up.
“She is the archetype of a woman politician in the 21st century,” Douhane said. “She wants power to help advance things, not for power’s sake.
“And this is a Socialist telling you this,” he added.
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