PARIS - The clerk on the reception desk at the French Ministry for Sustainable Development, an immigrant of African origin, looks at the press card, turns it over in her hand, and calls through to the secretary's bureau. "Monsieur Press Card is here," she announces with a serious expression. "Send him through," comes the immediate response from the other end of the line, with not even a hint of astonishment.
Is this perhaps a blatant example of failed immigrant absorption in France? Or maybe the opposite - testimony to a forced, coerced integration that affords opportunities even to those who still have trouble reading and writing?
Tokia Saifi, France's secretary of state for sustainable development, is a different story altogether. But her life story, despite its impressive, unprecedented success, also contains elements of the frustrating failure of French immigration policy.
Saifi, 44, was born in northern France into a poor immigrant family from Algeria. Her father, a laborer in the iron industry, died when she was 14, leaving behind a family of 10 children and a mother with no basic education. Overcoming the difficulties, Saifi went on to graduate from the University of Lille's law faculty and embarked on a public and political career. This has continued for 20 years and has been crowned by attempts to promote the assimilation of immigrants into society - and a struggle against Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme rightists.
Her ideological path started on the left, passed through a French environmental party, and continued on the right, which she represented as an MEP (member of the European Parliament). In May 2002, Saifi fulfilled the dream of many second generation immigrants when Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin made her France's first ever minister from the immigrant community.
Her incorporation into, her loyalty to, and identification with France and its values are profound - those who want to can hear the voices of Chirac and Raffarin coming from her lips. She is an ardent supporter of the law forbidding Muslim girls from wearing headscarves to school: "The school should be preserved as a neutral republican bastion; immigrants must be sent a strong message about the dignity of women; and it is essential to put an end to fundamentalists manipulating the silent majority of immigrants."
She has reservations about affirmative action - "it's a mistaken Anglo-Saxon model that encourages division between peoples of different ethnic origins and perpetuates a social ghetto mentality." This contrasts with integration a la Francaise that requires immigrants to leave their faith and customs at home and adopt the common basis of French values - first and foremost, liberty, equality and fraternity.
She also refuses to see France as racist or anti-Semitic, and even rejects the claim that it has the phenomenon of Islamophobia. "It's a term that is nothing more than `a rhetorical grab' on the part of a radical and non-representative Muslim minority" - the same minority that ardently calls her "a traitor" and "servant of the West."
Her lofty position has not blinded her, however. She knows by heart the figures from January's harsh report from the supreme government council on integration, which exposed the failure of immigrant absorption policy. Unemployment among the youth is at around 40 percent, she says, and rising; education levels are unsatisfactory; inequality between men and women is widening; fundamentalism, which discriminates professionally and socially, is increasing.
"If your name is Mohammed or Fatima, if you are young, and if you come from a suburb with a bad reputation, you are holding three good reasons for your resume to be dumped in the trash basket, and it makes no difference what your skills or education are," Saifi says.
These, she says, are the real problems - not the headscarves that have stolen the headlines, not virtual Islamophobia, and semantic disputes between supporters of American affirmative action and French "positive enlistment," as the government defines its integration tactics.
The political struggle being waged on the backs of the immigrants is doing nothing to solve their daily hardships. The left, from where Saifi began, was traditionally perceived as representing the immigrants, but she accuses it of cynically exploiting them for electoral purposes - of using them and then tossing them aside.
Second-generation immigrants who remain on the left counter by arguing that she is nothing more than "a showcase minister" - a fig leaf to conceal the continuing discriminating and alienating policy of the right, which continues to woo extreme right voters in the framework of what is termed here "the Le Penization of the spirit."
The main goal Saifi set for herself on entering politics was to help "banalize" the immigrants' presence in France - "to make them forget about us." It appears that the road ahead to that is still a very long one.
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