MONTLHERY, FRANCE — Every day, Fadela Amara, a small woman with what she calls "a big mouth," plunges into tough immigrant neighborhoods where her boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, dares not go.
A high school dropout from the slums who became a celebrated feminist, Amara acts as the message and messenger to a world where France's new president is reviled: Soon after Sarkozy famously referred to unruly immigrant youth as "scum" two years ago, the projects erupted into France's worst riots in decades.
Six months after his election, the ubiquitous Sarkozy has yet to call on the suburban slums the French call les banlieues.
Instead, he sends Amara.
She is France's new minister of urban affairs, a very public face of the center-right Sarkozy's attempt at inclusive government. Of his top lieutenants, she is one of three Muslims, seven women and more than a dozen advisors who defected from left-leaning parties to join up.
But fissures are starting to appear in the united front, and the outspoken Amara is at the leading edge. This week, she stirred such a virulent public debate among Sarkozy allies over his immigration policy that the president had to call for "everyone to calm down."
The debate centered on a controversial proposal to force immigrants to submit to DNA tests to prove they have relatives here. Amara questioned the fundamental legitimacy of the legislation and, by inference, the politicians who proposed it.
"I've had enough of seeing immigration exploited all the time, for very clear reasons," she said on a radio show. "I think it's disgusting." Later, she said she would resign if her disagreements with the government's policy became unbearable.
Conservatives from Sarkozy's party, already edgy over her critiques, often delivered with jabbing finger and ghetto slang, quickly scolded Amara. "She should think before she uses words against what the Parliament debates and decides," one party leader said. She was also taunted by Socialists, who urged her to go ahead and resign.
Amara isn't leaving just yet.
The 43-year-old can usually be found in a black pantsuit, hanging out in stairwells and community halls, talking to unemployed kids and their parents. With her thick curly hair pulled back in a clip and wearing no makeup, she has been traversing France as Sarkozy's envoy in the banlieue.
Next month, she is expected to deliver a plan for the government to rehabilitate the slums.
But does she really believe a president facing a $59-billion deficit will come through with the money and leadership to turn around the lives of the 10% of the population from North African and Arab backgrounds, most of them Muslims, who feel forgotten in French society?
"In the mind of the president of the republic," Amara said, "there's a real desire to change the situation in the banlieues. That's why I, a leftist woman, chose to become a part of a government that's on the political right: Because there is a crisis."
And despite the frictions within the government, Amara was standing by her boss: "He respects my convictions, as I respect his, even though I don't share them."
Desire to 'keep it real'
On a recent day, Amara sat at a table in Montlhery, a rural town about an hour south of Paris, with about a dozen of the worst-educated teenagers of France. They were jobless, but were attending a regimented state school to get some basic skills. Boys and girls alike wore matching gray pants and jackets.
Their hands were folded on the table and they stared at Amara in prim but wary silence. "So it's cool here?" she began.
Yes, the students answered.
"It's not bad to be treated like everyone else, is it?" said Amara, who appreciates being treated like the others around Sarkozy's ministerial table, who are ferried in state cars and provided with majestic, oversized offices in central Paris. (Amara's ministry comes with such an office and an accompanying apartment, but she has chosen to "keep it real," as she likes to say, by remaining in the poor suburb where she grew up.)
Throughout the brief meeting with the kids, Amara made it clear that she was still one of them.
Really, she couldn't stand to get up at 5 a.m. like they must every morning; she knows what it's like to endure peer pressure; she knows the atmosphere of violence and disappointment where they come from.
But she is not for soft solutions. Discipline and hard work are the way to find jobs, and she has "zero tolerance against slacking off." These young people must claim their citizenship, because exclusion is no more acceptable.
"And you sing the Marseillaise once a week?" she asked, ignoring a little groan from a boy in the corner about the French national anthem. "That's great. You know the words too? You're not just mumbling?" Then she bobbed her head side to side as if imitating someone who doesn't know the words. The kids started to giggle.
One of 10 children