Azouz Begag
From the Banlieue to a Place in the Cabinet

Azouz Begag was born in an immigrant shantytown on the outskirts of Lyon. He later became a novelist and social scientist. To his own surprise he was now appointed France's new Minister for the Promotion of Equal Opportunity. Bernard Schmid reports

Azouz Begag, Foto:
Azouz Begag: in his recent film he indirectly, but sharply criticised Nicolas Sarkozy - now the Interior Minister is his colleague in the cabinet

​​"I never dreamt that I would stroll along the Champs-Elysées as a French minister when my new film is released," Azouz Begag said in a recent interview with a French radio station. Begag makes no secret of his humble origins. As the son of Algerian immigrants who escaped the poverty of the Algerian countryside to work in the factories of Lyon, the celebrated 47-year-old author is amazed at this latest turn of events in his complex career.

"Camping à la ferme" was released on June 29th in Paris. Azouz Begag wrote the script, Jean-Pierre Sinapi directed the film, and Roschdy Zem played the leading role. This entertaining 92-minute film tells the story of six juvenile delinquents from the "banlieues" (the tough neighborhoods on the outskirts of French cities) who do a month of community work in a village as an alternative to serving a prison sentence.

Taking a critical look at French society

Without idealizing the youths as angels – one of them is even shown trying to steal money while doing his "voluntary" work – the film takes a critical look at French society. Although the mayor at first appears highly enthusiastic about her "innovative experiment" in community work in the village, she turns out to be a self-serving politician who just wants to get her picture on TV.

The local racists, who flatly rejected the idea of those "foreigners" in their village, definitely get what is coming to them. By contrast, the undisputed hero of the film is the man in charge of supervising the young delinquents (Roschdy Zem), a lady-killer of sorts who comes from a family of immigrants himself and admits to "screwing up" in his youth before turning his life around by studying and working hard to become a respected member of society.

Our hero successfully deals with every conflict that arises during the film. Clearly this character is based in large part on Azouz Begag himself.

Begag and the social mobility of immigrants

Azouz Begag was born in 1957 in a "bidonville", a shantytown of corrugated iron huts where poor immigrant workers lived on the outskirts of Lyon, directly on the banks of the Rhône. His childhood there was the subject of his first novel, "Le Gone de Chaâba" ("gone" means "child"; the bidonville was called El-Chaâba), which was published in 1986 and made into a film 10 years later.

Although his father never went to school himself, he urged Azouz from an early age to get a good education, suspecting that this was the secret to climbing the social ladder. Azouz Begag came through with flying colors. He received his PhD in economics and became a university instructor and a researcher in "urban social economy" at the prestigious French CNRS scientific research center.

Nonetheless, the main focus of his research and novels remains on the problems that account for his own life history: the issue of the social mobility of immigrants in society.

Job opportunities for migrants in the civil service, police

Getting an education and escaping the "social ghettos" of the banlieues as quickly as possible is his recipe for success to young people from immigrant families.

This was the main message of a report that Begag submitted in the spring of 2004 to the Minister of the Interior at the time – the current French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin – in which he recommended that the children of immigrants be given greater job opportunities in the civil service, police and professional careers.

His proposals were recognized at least in one sense: When Villepin formed his government in early June, he remembered Azouz Begag and appointed him Minister for the Promotion of Equal Opportunity. It is no coincidence that Azouz Begag has been given a cabinet position by a conservative liberal right-wing government.

Migrants' natural support the left is waning

Although the social background of most French immigrant families makes them "natural" supporters of the left, over a decade of empty promises from the leftist parties in power since 1981 has caused widespread disillusionment among the electorate.

Voter disenchantment is so extensive that the established leftist parties now have serious difficulties re-connecting to the well-educated sons and daughters of immigrants seeking a career (possibly in the political arena).

Moreover, the Gaullist party under Jacques Chirac, at least on a verbal level, has paid significantly more attention to the suffering of the Palestinians than the previous Socialist government under Lionel Jospin, which took a highly one-sided pro-Israeli stance on foreign policy issues. Such symbolic differences have attracted a great many highly qualified young people from immigrant families to the Gaullist right.

A mixture of repressive measures and promotion

In the interest of "promoting equal opportunities", Azouz Begag has had to weather a number of controversies in the new government. The Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, advocates a mixture of extremely repressive measures in the banlieues and the establishment of strict quotas to promote an educated elite from immigrant families (along the lines of "affirmative action" or "positive discrimination").

Begag rejects such mechanisms for two reasons. First, he says that they would threaten to lock individuals into an "identity". Second, he maintains that the quotas would cast doubt on the abilities of the very people who should benefit from them.

Sarkozy, who incidentally has vehemently called into question the traditional separation of church and state in France, also proposes that these students be characterized "as Muslims", whereas Begag says that the young people should be acknowledged as "competent school and university graduates".

Of course Begag also supports the removal of barriers resulting from discriminatory practices.

The gibe against Sarkozy

Begag has found diplomatic, yet clear words to contradict the current repressive course of the Interior Minister's policies. In the radio interview, he was asked to comment on recent statements made by Sarkozy, in which the Interior Minister promised to cleanse a Parisian banlieue "with a high-pressure hose" to rid it of criminals and illegal immigrants. Begag said that the term "cleansing" couldn't be applied to people. "I cleanse my shoes or my flower pots," he said to illustrate his statement.

In Begag's new film, the law-and-order minister is subtly criticized in yet another way: The mayor is handed a picture of Nicolas Sarkozy, which she hangs up in the town hall with the remark: "Oh well, there are a few fascists everywhere".

Her comment is actually directed at the village racists, but the target of this gibe is clearly Sarkozy. When he was writing his script, Begag had no way of knowing that he would one day be in the same cabinet with this hardliner while his film was shown to audiences across France.

Bernard Schmid

© 2005

Translation from German: Paul Cohen

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