When being called “Bagdad” is a handicap

December 18, 2007

There’s a story unfolding in France that isn’t about religion, but says a lot about the hurdles that residents with a Muslim background here can face. When youths in the poor suburbs complain about discrimination (discussed here in a post about the riots last month), they mention stories like this one to highlight their point.

Counting votes at a French polling stationBagdad Ghezal, 53, is a community activist who has been the local Socialist Party (PS) section leader for the past six years in the Channel fishing port of Etaples. He recently learned the regional PS leadership wanted to “parachute” in a candidate for the mayor’s race in March. The outsider was a 35-year-old énarque (graduate of the elite ENA school of public administration) with the very aristocratic name of Antoine de Rocquigny du Fayel. He lives in Lille, about 150 km away, but has a summer house in Etaples. Ghezal protested that he was first in line and wanted to run, but the regional leadership refused to consider him.

The Etaples PS section held a primary vote and Ghezal trounced de Rocquigny du Fayel 3-to-1. But the regional leadership annulled the result, saying the loser was “more credible” as a candidate. “Why would de Rocquigny du Fayel, who does not live in Etaples, be better than Bagdad who has been an activist here for the past 10 years?” Ghezal asked (Europe 1 audio in French here). “This is clearly discrimination.”

Socialist Party leaders met in Paris on Saturday to approve lists of candidates for the municipal elections around the country in March. These opposition Socialists would like to turn them into a setback for conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy. They like to say they respect diversité — the politically correct way of referring to promoting candidates of immigrant backgrounds. So the resistance by the Pas-de-Calais regional PS leadership was an embarrassment and the national leadership told the regional barons they must respect the vote of the Etaples local section.

Rachida DatiFadela AmaraRama YadeThe PS has a problem here, though. It did little to promote minorities to important and visible jobs on the national level when it last held power in Paris. By contrast, Sarkozy has given top-level posts to three women of immigrant origin and has defended them against some rough criticism. They are Justice Minister Rachida Dati and Secretary of State for Urban Policy Fadela Amara (both French-born, of Moroccan and Algerian origin respectively) and Secretary of State for Human Rights Rama Yade (a naturalised citizen born in Senegal).

As it now stands, the regional PS barons are resisting the pressure from the national leadership and going ahead with the candidacy of de Rocquigny du Fayel. As one article put it in its headline, “Being named Bagdad is a handicap.”

Religion plays no part in this story, but Ghezal’s Arab background probably does. Even larger looms the fact that French politics is dominated by a “classe politique” that is notoriously wary of outsiders. Women also suffer from this; France is far behind its European neighbours in the percentage of women in parliament, which women blame on the fact that they — like Bagdad Ghezal — often fail to get nominated by the party barons who control the process. According to the left-wing daily Libération, de Rocquigny du Fayel enjoys solid support form a leading énarque in the regional PS hierarchy.

None of this justifies rioting. None of this says minorities cannot advance in France. But it does go some way towards explaining why many French from minority backgrounds say the cards are stacked against them.

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