‘They don’t come from the usual elitist white male cookie-cutter mould of French politicians. They have grassroots political experience rather than coming from the old boys’ club of grandes écoles [the elite universities that educate the bulk of France’s high-flyers]’
Vivienne Walt, the Paris correspondent for Time magazine quoted in the Guardian
After my last post I re-read the Observer article and found this quote I’d missed. Well I knew that Rama Yade was at Sciences-Po, so I thought I’d check how realistic this assessment was. Of the six female ministers mentioned in the article, five had been to the grandes ecoles, and the other is a doctor of pharmacy and an ex-MEP. One of them, Michele Alliot-Marie, was a lecturer in politics and law at the Sorbonne, and it doesn’t get much more grandes ecoles than that.
Interestingly, two of Sarkozy’s seven female cabinet ministers didn’t go to one of the grandes ecoles (Rama Yade isn’t a cabinet minister), and these were the ones not mentioned in the Observer piece. Christine Boutin probably doesn’t fit their story because she’s of the religious right and involved in the pro-life movement, and the other Christine Albanel, was a senior civil servant and worked for Chirac when he was PM and President, hardly grass-roots.
The analysis presented in the quote above is quite simply nonsense. Hold the front page, ‘government still populated by the posh and privileged’; even if one or two had humble beginnings.
This is slightly off topic for me, because it isn’t really about social science and its misuses, but a more simple issue of translation. Because people in different places/cultures, and even different people in the same ‘place’ see the world in different ways, use different systems and language, you have to be careful to dig behind the meanings. Today’s Observer has a feature on Sarkozettes, who look remarkably like Blair’s Babes all those years ago. At least it’s not just about Carla Bruni today! Anyway, under a photo of Rama Yade it said ’31-year old Rama Yade was working as an administrator when Sarkozy promoted her to minister of foreign affairs’. Now, I’m not knocking her achievement, and 31 is very young to get a job like this, but the Observer’s language makes it sound almost unbelievable (particularly the UK’s got a really young foreign secretary in his early 40s) and I was also surprised I hadn’t heard of her. Of course, the journalist’s turn of phrase leads us to think of the minister of foreign affairs, who is actually the Bernard Kouchne, who’s 68 and not so young. More importantly, the word ‘administrator’ has very different connotations either side of the channel. Here it usually means someone carrying out tasks in an office on behalf of someone else, and often with little pay or responsibility. ‘Admin’ staff are often in the lowest ranks of an organisation, and usually undervalued and overworked. In France an administrator is a senior member of the civil service, as seen in the name of the Ecole nationale d’administration, which is their equivalent to our National School of Government. I don’t know if Rama Yade had time there while working as a civil servant, but she’s went to Sciences Po, which educates the French political elite, and was doing a high-flying job in government. This reminded me of two issues. First, the way comparing different places, cultures or whatever is fraught with translation problems. There was a story about French and British national identity (arguing that French national identity is stronger for immigrants to France), while forgetting that in Britain we’ve got England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so if some people choose these the statistics are skewed. Second, it reminded me how sloppy journalism can be. I know next to nothing about French politics and imagine the author probably knows more than me, but she left ‘government administrator’ unexplained so that whoever did the photo caption, who probably knows less than me, just took it as written. Just as a statistic or social theory gets garbled by being passed from a researcher to a non-expert journalist to the public, a simple fact gets mistranslated because of a lack of expertise and a lack of care.