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Burqa is 'walking coffin' – minister

Muslim minister Fadela Amara, head of urban estates, says she is fighting a new brand of fascism disguised as Islam.

FADELA Amara is a left-wing politician who did not vote for President Sarkozy, yet serves as his Minister of Urban Policies. Working her way up from an underprivileged immigrant background she is now charged with tackling the problems of poverty and crime in the banlieues – housing estates round the big cities. Oliver Rowland met her at her ministry in Paris.

Do you sometimes still feel surprised to be here in this job, having started from a humble background?
Yes, nothing destined me to be a minister. My father was a manual worker and my parents are Algerian immigrants. I am an atypical minister – a militant minister, a minister of the banlieues and I am proud of that – I owe it to President Sarkozy, who had great political courage to put people like me in jobs like these even though I do not belong to his political family.

What is the difference between banlieues (suburbs), cités (housing estates) or quartiers (districts of a town)?
These terms refer to the same areas that accumulate all the social handicaps and difficulties.

In the 1960s large districts of HLMs (habitations à loyer modéré - social housing) were built which absorbed the big bidonvilles (shanty towns) or cités de transit (areas of temporary housing for homeless families).

It was a social promotion, it was considered something great because someone was taking an interest in housing these people who were extremely vulnerable.

Living in an HLM was seen as luxury – in the shanty towns a lot of people had no shower or bathtub but in the HLMs we had a real bathroom.

However, over the years the situation deteriorated. One problem was the tendency to only house the poorest people in these areas – and often people of immigrant origin – so there was no social mix.

What’s more these areas were not maintained, they were abandoned. Problems were made worse by rising unemployment in the 70s and 90s.

We ended up with a situation where the values of the quartiers were no longer those of the Republic – liberté, égalité, fraternité – but what is known as le code de la cité, the law of the strongest and its complement the law of silence, which were imposed on people in these zones urbaines sensibles (sensitive urban areas, ZUS – priority urban regeneration areas).

In the quartiers a strong underground economy grew up. If you are a victim of this trafficking, you don’t dare to report it because you are afraid you or your family will be attacked. We are talking about mafia-type organisations.

You experienced all of this?
I was born in a shanty town – then we moved into social housing and then I saw how we were abandoned by the politicians, both left and right, and how the most vulnerable people had their freedoms taken away.

Apart from mafia-type groups there are also Islamist ones who have installed themselves in certain areas. They are a minority, but they are very militant and they have messed up the heads of a lot of young people.

It’s a phenomenon that increased in the 1980s-1990s. It was a face of Islam that was more or less hidden – an “Islam of the cellars” – it spread in unofficial prayer rooms. We are talking about the hijacking of Islam for political ends – nothing to do with the actual religion of Islam.

The majority of Muslims should not be confused with what I call the Soldiers of Green Fascism (green is associated with Islam). Their preaching is very radical, notably on women, and we saw more and more veils, more and more women who had had their basic freedoms taken away.

Preachers took advantage of disaffected, unemployed young people to recruit them – though many, I am glad to say, have left again.

With the creation of the organisation Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Doormats) in 2003 we brought these problems out into public view. We denounced all violence that existed in the quartiers, the difficult social conditions, the enormous unemployment rates, and the consequences when people take out their frustrations on the most vulnerable, like women and homosexuals.

We saw women having to hide away in the shadows, sometimes being confined to their homes, being covered by a veil – or even a burqa – in public spaces to avoid being bothered or considered whores. Girls couldn’t dress how they wanted, couldn’t use make-up or wear close-fitting clothes, couldn’t pursue their studies, couldn’t choose their own partners – we saw more forced marriages.

There are also incidents of severe homophobic violence – we must not brush it under the carpet, we must denounce it and combat it.

Ni Putes Ni Soumises is the inheritor of a tradition of French women of the past who fought for rights and respect - like Olympe de Gouges, who (in 1791) re-wrote the declaration of the rights of man as the rights of woman, and had her head cut off – or the 1970s feminists, who won more rights for women, but not the ones who lived in the quartiers. Theirs was a bourgeois feminism.

NPNS helped to raise public awareness of the necessity for this renewal of the feminist fight. People didn't know what was going on because no one wanted to talk about it – not least out of fear of being considered racist. We gained a lot of support for our campaigns, for example one in schools for boys to treat girls with respect, which was supported by the Education Ministry and by the then president, Chirac.

In 2004 there was the issue of the veil in schools, and NPNS ran a campaign against them. Some think it’s a religious symbol, but for me it is not. It is a symbol of humiliation – I am a practising Muslim. It damages equality between men and women. We supported the law that was passed to ban all religious symbols in schools and other state buildings.

Has it been accepted?
The Islamists threatened reprisals, but nothing happened. A few girls refused to go to school – but they can be counted on your fingers – they opted for distance learning. Some take the veils off at school and put them on again when they leave, but the great majority got rid of them definitively.

In the quartiers, mums of girls who had been forced to wear the veil, took advantage to resist pressure from their husbands or older sons – they said, look it’s the law, she can’t wear it now. The law helped to emancipate hundreds of thousands.

Now there is a lot of talk of the burqa – do you feel they are on the increase?
I tend to think so. When you go out in the markets you seem to see them more and more. With the burqa we are talking about a political project which aims to create more inequality between men and women. You take away women’s rights with this walking coffin. It negates them.

It is surprising that you are now working as a minister for President Sarkozy when your background is socialist?
I have been an activist since I was 14. I am very attached to the combat against all forms of injustice and when Sarkozy proposed I enter his government in charge of a subject I know perfectly, we both thought it was a suitable mission for me.

We had a lot of discussions and I realised he really wanted to help these people to live well and believed in a real combat against discrimination and racism.

I have confidence in him, even if I did not vote for him - I am a woman of the left but we are in an open government and no one has asked me to become militant for the UMP. I set conditions and I have complete freedom.

It shows he wanted to be president of everyone, including those who did not vote for him. He is not at all sectarian, he has opened up his government and is extraordinarily open-minded, which can’t be said for my own political family which did not allow children of manual workers and immigrants to have political responsibilities. I had already fallen out with them around the end of 1999 on questions of women and the veil. I accused them of negotiating with the Islamists. These are principles I cannot compromise on.

I am against cultural relativism. I reject that in my country – under the pretext it concerns people who are from a foreign culture – people get away with “honour” killings, forced marriages and polygamy. It is a scandal.

We must not redefine liberty and equality according to what colour skin people have.

You are reported to have said you did not plan to vote for him next time...
That’s not important – what people expect from me is that I should succeed at my mission. I will vote for the man or woman who is capable of continuing with reforms and carrying them through to the end – this country was in a rut – and who will put justice at the centre of their politics.

I am not against the rich - you need to produce wealth before you can share it - what’s more important is that each citizen benefits from the same rights. It is also important that France and Europe helps those counties from which immigrants come, because they often leave because of extreme poverty.

■ Fadela Amara, 45, was born in 1964 in Clermont-Ferrand. She followed vocational training for office work.
■ 1983 – participated in la Marche des Beurs – a march across France against racism.
■ Worked for the anti-racism group SOS Racisme from 1986.
■ 2002 - organised the Etats généraux des filles des quartiers at the Sorbonne. Women told of problems around France and issues were communicated to presidential candidates. In 2003 helped organise Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Doormats) march for women’s rights and became president of the resulting association.
■ 2003 – invited by Sarkozy to become Secrétaire d’Etat pour la Politique de la Ville.
■ Wrote Ni Putes Ni Soumises (2003) and la Racaille de la République (2006). Subject of 2009 biography Fadela Amara: le Destin d’une Femme, by Cécile Amar.

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