Rama Yade: The political star who's eclipsing Sarko

Rama Yade is tall, elegant and, unusually for one of the French President's protégées, outspoken – which may explain why the Minister for Human Rights has fallen foul of the Elysée Palace. John Lichfield reports

Rama Yade grins broadly and shrugs modestly. How, she has been asked, can she explain her overwhelming popularity after only two years in French politics? Is it because she is both "belle et rebelle" – strikingly beautiful and the only minister to have stood up publicly to President Nicolas Sarkozy?

"Is that what people are saying? Ah, you British," she said coyly. "Honestly, I am not the person who is best placed to answer that question. Obviously, it is touching to be so popular but, then again, you have to tell yourself that popularity can come and go. I try not to think about it too much."

Mme Yade, 32, tall and black, and elegantly power-dressed in all-black, was talking to a group of foreign correspondents about her job as the first ever French minister for human rights, about her optimism for the future of her native Africa, about her own future and political career.

For more than an hour, Mme Yade proved that she is a true diplomat's daughter-turned-politician. She spouted long passages of empty, diplo-political verbiage. She did, however, lapse from time to time into the "real Rama": courageous, intelligent, naïve, as delighted with her own performance as a schoolgirl asked to talk to the class on her favourite subject.

According to recent opinion polls, Ramatoulaye Yade is now the most popular member of the French government. According to one recent poll, she is, jointly with former president Jacques Chirac, the most popular, political figure in France. Who said that the French were racist?

Rama Yade was born in Senegal and was nine years old when she moved to France. She was a complete unknown until she was chosen by M. Sarkozy as a spokeswoman for his presidential campaign two years ago. She had never run for political office or worked in a ministry before she was made junior foreign minister for human rights in May 2007.

She, like the Justice Minister, Rachida Dati, was a Sarkozy acolyte plucked from nowhere to break the de-facto race barrier in French politics and to demonstrate to white, grey-suited, middle-aged politicians that preferment was now in the gift of the new President alone.

In office, Mme Yade has proved much more independent-minded than Mme Dati. She infuriated President Sarkozy by criticising his decision to invite Muammar Gaddafi on a state visit to Paris last year. The Libyan leader, she said, should not be allowed to use France as a "doormat to wipe the blood off his feet". She refused (unlike Mme Dati) to be sent into internal exile in the European Parliament.

Her popularity is, therefore, partly a reflection of President Sarkozy's unpopularity. The same phenomenon – popularity on the rebound – explains why the former president Jacques Chirac has boomed in the opinion polls in recent weeks and why there has been a surge of sales and public readings of a 17th-century novel, La Princesse de Clèves, which M. Sarkozy has twice proclaimed an "unreadable" symbol of a hide-bound education system.

Mme Yade, her jealous ministerial colleagues complain, has had her popularity presented to her on a plate. Her job merely involves annoying brutal foreign governments and President Sarkozy. It does not require her to annoy the French by trying to reform or run France.

The philosopher Pascal Bruckner also points out that the French, perhaps more than other nations, are easily seduced by physical beauty. "Her looks are certainly a big plus," he said. "She has come to stand for a rebellion of youth and beauty against the establishment ... She is hated for precisely the same reasons within the government. And that makes her allure all the greater."

Even leaving beauty and rebellion apart, Mme Yade is a compelling character with an unusual life story. She is a former socialist and ecologist, converted to President Sarkozy's brand of charismatic, reformist conservatism. She is a Muslim member of a centre-right government married to a Jewish, Socialist party member, Joseph Zimet, whose father is a Yiddish folk-singer. She is an African-born passionate advocate of Africa who regards herself as a French patriot "with a certain idea of France".

Her father is a Senegalese diplomat and politician. She lived in some style in France until he left the family when she was 14. She, her mother and three sisters had to move into a council flat in Colombes, one of the more peaceful inner-suburban towns, just west of Paris.

Despite her Muslim faith, she was educated at a Catholic school. She gained a place at one of the finishing schools of the French political élite, Sciences Po, and worked for the Green party and the Senate before attaching herself to the future President Sarkozy and his centre-right Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire.

She was attracted to M. Sarkozy, she explains, by his plain-talking, "rebellious" side, by the fact that he was prepared to challenge taboos such as the official French horror of affirmative action for racial minorities. President Sarkozy, it is said, also admired her rebellious side, until she began to rebel against him. When she made it clear that she was more than just a "symbol" who could be shoved around, a whispering campaign against her was launched by the Elysée Palace late last year.

She was described as "an adolescent", "hollow", "lazy". She was not invited to the weekly cabinet meetings for more than three months. When she made a reappearance a couple of weeks ago, the President read his papers while she talked and curtly said "thank you" when she concluded.

Mme Yade was invited to accompany M. Sarkozy on a trip to West Africa two weeks ago. Another minister, Brice Hortefeux – a friend of M. Sarkozy's for 30 years – is reported by Le Figaro to have "half-jokingly" told her: "You're coming with us. That's good. But we don't have to bring you back again." Considering her African origins and that M. Hortefeux used to be the immigration minister, Mme Yade is said to have found the remark offensive.

In her meeting with foreign correspondents, Mme Yade denied suggestions that she had been ordered to stay clear of the "big" human rights questions such as China. Her less publicised activities on wider issues such as women's and children's rights were at the "core of human rights", she said. But she still intended to speak out on other issues.

"Human rights is a subject which is to bound cause offence. It's not true that I have a big mouth. I can be very cautious, you know, very soft. I was very well brought up. But when you are put in charge of human rights, what are you supposed to do if not talk about them? If I was in charge of cauliflowers I would talk about cauliflowers."

A recent accord between France and China, after months of tension, has been interpreted as an agreement by Paris no longer to press for Tibetan rights or talk about other humanitarian causes in China. Mme Yade said there was no change in France's position. Tibet was part of China but Paris would press for recognition of the "spiritual and cultural rights" of the Tibetan people.

The subject on which Mme Yade became the most animated was Africa. The old, cosy relationship between ex-colonist France and the political élites of African countries must change and is changing, she said. Instead, France should "support" the other, younger, more dynamic, forward-looking Africa. "I am an Afro-optimist," she said.

Mme Yade declined to comment on rumours that she may be fired and her job abolished in a government reshuffle this summer. It would, in fact, be difficult for M. Sarkozy to fire his "black Princesse de Clèves".

The other high-profile "minority" minister, Rachida Dati, is already being squeezed out of the government to go to the European Parliament. To lose both symbols would seem careless. In any case, Mme Yade has become so popular that dumping her might further damage the President's popularity. A shrewd alternative would be to promote Mme Yade into a tricky, reforming, domestic portfolio where her popularity could gently collide with the immobility of parts of the French electorate.

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