The leftist daughter of Algerian immigrants, Fadela Amara is an unlikely cabinet minister. A high-school dropout, she made her name as head of Neither Whores Nor Submissives, which defends women's rights in the rough Paris suburbs. When President Nicolas Sarkozy launched his "Marshall Plan for the suburbs," he named Amara, 43, its leader. The plan pledges more law enforcement, 100,000 jobs, public transit and better schooling for top students. Critics call it light on details. Amara discussed it with NEWSWEEK's Tracy McNicoll. Excerpts:
McNicoll:You grew up in the projects yourself. What has changed?
Amara: Before, my district was a real working-class neighborhood with a large Algerian immigrant population and some French families. We were all poor, yet it was easier to live then because there was far less violence than today. What's especially changed is the rise of anarchic violence that takes whole neighborhoods hostage. It's the law of the strongest, and its corollary: the law of silence.
Why such drastic change?
Back then, there was far less unemployment. In certain districts today, there's 42 percent youth unemployment. So it's an explosive situation. Now, paradoxically, unemployment in France is decreasing. But it doesn't benefit the districts because there's discrimination. We must bring the supply and demand together, and to effectively, radically fight discrimination.
These problems aren't new. And banlieue plans go back 25 years. What was missing?
Real political will was greatly lacking. There was no follow-up, no assessment. No one really knew who governed urban policy. Today, I'm the conductor. I knock at each ministry—Education, Health, Sports, Culture, Employment, Social Affairs—and say, "What are you going to do for the banlieues today and how much will you put in?"
Sarkozy's presentation was panned as too heavy-handed.
There is strong demand from folks in the districts for security. They want more police to prevent crime. It's important that in my country there be no so-called "lost territories of the republic." Public services must be present everywhere, be it the postal service or police.
The plan emphasizes social diversity, even American-style "bussing" of children to school in wealthier districts. Is there resistance from those areas?
We'll experiment before generalizing nationwide. But the idea isn't to ask people's opinion … Whether they are happy or not, it doesn't matter. We have to organize this social mixing because what created the social explosion of [the 2005 riots] is the absence of any concept of living together.
Was it wrong to promise a "Marshall Plan," raising expectations of a specific budget?
I come from the projects, so I get it. Listen well, it's very important: no matter the name you give this plan, the expectations are so enormous that you'd hear anyway it wasn't up to it. I refused to have the plan itemized. Why? We can't give a euro figure because each minister will be putting the plans in place, which is new. So we'll actually surpass the billion euros people imagined. When [Sarkozy] as candidate, even as president, said "Marshall Plan for the banlieues," it wasn't in terms of money. It was in terms of mobilization and political will. Over the past 20 years, 40 billion euros have been invested in the banlieues. So it isn't merely a question of money. It's a lot more important actually than the Marshall Plan because, in the collective unconsciousness, the Marshall Plan was the reconstruction of France. We are in a reality of construction [and] the reconstruction of working-class districts.
Your use of slang was criticized even within the government. What does that prove?
It proves the gap between some of my colleagues and life's realities. When I [used slang] in the Council of Ministers, I know some jumped, some took offense, some had their eardrums punctured. The truth is, one had to bring reality—the violence of a social reality that exists in our country and that politicians, left and right alike, have simply forgotten. Instead of saying, "What you did isn't good, Fadela. You don't speak French properly," let's look at the substantive problems and how together we can roll back exclusion and social suffering in these districts. That's what interests me. The rest, I don't give a damn.