Seeking liberty for the underclass and equality for the poor

March 17, 2006

An early life in the slums informs the policies of France's Minister for Equality, Azouz Begag. Jane Marshall reports

For more than 20 years, Azouz Begag studied France's banlieues - the deprived outer-city suburbs dominated by high-rise housing estates where unemployment hits 50 per cent. So when violence erupted there last November, the sociologist and newly appointed Minister for Equal Opportunities was perhaps more knowledgeable than most of his colleagues as to the causes behind it.

But, although he has criticised Nikolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, for saying that those involved in the violence were "riff-raff", Begag has been attacked by many on the Left, who suggest that he is being used by the Right to placate France's immigrant community and justify policies. He has been called a " beur de service " (token Arab) in the French press.

Begag, who is of Algerian descent, has written widely on multiculturalism but he rejects identity politics based on religion and race. Although he once advocated positive discrimination, he now eschews this approach in favour of what magazine The New Republic describes as "a blander programme of republican egalitarianism".

He argues that multiculturalism, as practised in the UK, would not work in assimilationist France because of its historical commitment to " egalité ".

He describes it as "a concept that is not anchored in France's history" and he says positive discrimination is "full of negative connotations because it still talks about 'discrimination'". He adds that it was clear from public reaction to Sarkozy's celebration of the appointment of a Muslim préfet (governor) about three years ago that positive discrimination would not work in secular France. "It was unthinkable to promote an individual by virtue of his religious origin or his religion," he says.

His emphasis, instead, is on equal opportunities. "I am not the Minister for Integration, I am not the Minister for Immigrants - I am the Minister for Equal Opportunities, for all French people," he says. "Equal opportunities are for all those who suffer from having been left out."

Begag has experienced discrimination, even as a minister. In October, he was challenged and "heavily questioned" by US immigration, despite his diplomatic papers. He was born in 1957, in Villeurbanne, a suburb of Lyon, to Algerian immigrant parents who had arrived in France in 1949. They lived with their seven children in a shantytown by the Rhone, a life Begag vividly describes in his prizewinning autobiographical first novel, Le Gone de Chaâba .

His first influence was his father. "He was illiterate, he didn't speak French. He understood that the best way for his children to become upwardly mobile was through education. So we were soon directed, motivated, encouraged by our father in the bidonville [shantytown] where I grew up."

Education played a crucial role in helping him to escape the bidonville . "In the 1960s, children of immigrants were in a minority at school, and we were treated with special consideration by our teachers," he says. Books made him aware of social injustice. "Reading Uncle Tom's Cabin made a great impression on me, at the age of about 12," he says. "It struck me that the history of the American blacks was very similar to the history of immigrants in France and, in the end, similar to all the histories of all the poor who suffer."

After doing a PhD in economics at Lyon-2 University, Begag became a sociologist at the CNRS (France's multidisciplinary scientific research centre) and the Maison des Sciences Sociales et Humaines in the early 1980s. He also taught at the Ecole Centrale de Lyon. In 1988, he spent a year as visiting professor at Cornell University in New York and was a member of the Conseil Economique et Social from 2004 until his ministerial appointment last June.

Begag's switch to politics came when he wrote an equal opportunities report for Dominique de Villepin, when he was Interior Minister. When de Villepin became Prime Minister, he appointed Begag the first Delegate Minister for the Promotion of Equal Opportunities.

Begag, who belongs to no political party, is often asked why he is a member of a right-wing Government and not a supporter of the Left. "Twenty-five years ago, the Left promised integration of children of the banlieues - and today there is not one MP from the banlieues nor one from the immigrant community. The Right made no promises. Today, the political courage for diversity is from the Right," he says, despite criticism of the Government's handling of last November's unrest.

As minister, Begag visits the banlieues several times a week. He opposes dependency on state handouts as a way to combat poverty, instead advising those he meets to "take fate into their own hands". "I tell them not to rely on the welfare state. We must do everything possible so that people can take responsibility for themselves," he states.

To this end, he believes that one way of dealing with the discontent highlighted by November's riots is to encourage people and business to become more mobile and flexible. "When French businesses recruit new workers, they should follow the policy called 'outreaching' - going into the banlieues to find new talent," he says. "But the young in the banlieues should also be able to move, to leave for professional training or to find a job. The Government's response to the crisis of the banlieues should be to move frontiers, remove the obstacles, untie the knots that are slowing down French society."

Begag has had to contend with further protests over the Government's equal opportunities policies. Two measures in particular have provoked anger: the introduction of vocational courses for pupils aged 14 and the contrat première embauche (CPE), which will encourage employers to recruit new employees aged 26 and under but will give them the unconditional right to dismiss recruits during their first two years.

Begag defends the CPE, calling it "an opportunity" for the young. "Society is blocked; I want to unblock it," he says, and criticises the Left for being too ideologically entrenched to look at new ideas for helping the young into jobs.

And he says of the vocational courses: "It is necessary to make technical expertise available to children who aren't adapted to academic education."

He speaks again of the need for flexibility in the system to allow 14-year-olds to move between work and school. "France needs to recognise the value of vocational skills," he says. "We have 15,000 young people aged between 14 and 16 who no longer go to school. I met pupils learning plumbing at a lower secondary 20 years ago. Today, they are 35 years old, well-off, have a job, a house, their family. Others who went to university and learnt anthropology, sociology or comparative literature - they have no work, no house. You can be a plumber and an intellectual."

The intellectual life is the role that gives him most satisfaction. He has written some 40 books - novels for adults and children, and sociological works - and screenplays. Indeed, he believes he is more likely to affect social change through scriptwriting than through politics. "You can touch the heart of society more effectively with the cinema than with politics.

Cinema transforms society without violence. Politics is a struggle."

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