Friday, July 02, 2004

First French Arab Named Minister... in Iraq

It seems that, as a French Arab (or an Assyrian), you're more likely to get a job in government in Iraq than in France.

Back in February, I blogged the latest spectacular failure in including Arabs in the French political process. Though Maghrebans make up 10% of French society (slightly smaller than the percentage of blacks in the US population), there is not a single Arab mayor in France. In December, PM Raffarin had a list of forty to fifty candidates of Arab extraction drawn up to stand on the UMP list the March parliamentary elections. Three weeks later, the list had been cleansed of almost all the Arab names on it and the handful remaining began withdrawing in protest. There are now only 7 Arabs in the French parliament (there are more Arab MPs in Israel, a country 90% smaller than France!). Until then, there had not been a single Arab member of parliament (and therefore not a single Arab minister). Currently, France has only two Arabs holding executive public office: Aïssa Dermouche, prefect of the Jura department in Loire-Atlantique. (You'll remember how his nomination was greeted. It wasn't pretty.) There is also undersecretary for Sustainable Development Tokia Saïfi (Environment Ministry) who called for affirmative action and told Le Monde "I am calling on political officials [to confront this problem]. Can they ignore the diversity of our society?"

Meanwhile in Iraq... Le Parisien's Baghdad correspondent scored an interview with Pascale Isho Warda, 43, the new Iraqi minister for Immigration and Refugees. Ms. Warda is an Assyrian Catholic and a life-long opponent of Saddam, (who tortured her father). She also lived in W.'s favorite place, Sarcelles (just outside Paris), for 15 years. The interview on Le Parisien's Web site doesn't display properly for me but the newspaper publicized the interview by allowing the AP to preview it. They report that she said, in part, "after all that Saddam did, he doesn't deserve to live." She hoped that Saddam's trial would come quickly "because we must rid ourselves of this problem as soon as possible. Saddam is a monstrous criminal, a murderer who killed more than a million Iraqis, according to the most conservative estimates." [The June issue of National Geographic contained an excellent report on the Shia of Iraq. On page 28, the author wrote, "the Free Prisoners Society estimates that five to seven million people 'disappeared' in the past two decades, the majority of them Shiites." I don't know that that's possible but it's likely the other end of the scale in terms of estimates.] Would Saddam get death? "Without predicting what the final decision of the judges will be," Warda said, "I am personally in favor of applying this sentence to him."

Warda laments France's attitude toward the intervention: "saying no to war was to say yes to Saddam so that could continue to massacre us." According to Moroccan daily Le Matin, Warda added to this that "Freedom comes at a price and France didn't want to see this. It retreated behind the UN, partly to defend its own economic interests." But, she said, "France is not unwelcome in Iraq. To the contrary, if she wants to, she can yet play a major role here." Finally, she admitted to fearing for her life in the current circumstances.

On June 5, Libération ran an interview with her: Ms. Warda grew up in Daudiya, a village in Kurdistan. "We lived well. My father, a landlord, farmed several hundred hectares." But Saddam's repeated military offensives spread death and destruction. "Our village was dynamited four times in a row." Her father was arrested on suspicion of aiding the peshmergas in 1968 and tortured for six months. "I was only seven years old but I'll always remember the day papa came home. He had a long beard and all his fingernails had been torn out," she says. At 17, she taught the Catechism and sang The Fables of La Fontaine to children in Aramaic. "France beckoned to me even then because the priests taught me about the lives of Napoleon and the French saints." She was an insubordinate student and refused Ba'thist indoctrination or enrollment in the youth sections. At 20, she won a grant to study philosophy at the Auxilium center in Lourdes, where she spent 8 years. "I wanted to study philosophy in order to forge weapons that would allow me to battle the Ba'th..."

When the Anfal campaigns began in 1988, her family fled to the Turkish border after narrowly avoiding bombs during a long exodus. France at first refused her family's request for asylum but at a refugee camp in Diyarbakir Warda met President Mitterrand's wife Danièle (one of the architects of Operation Provide Comfort who was regrettably driven by senility or cowardice to oppose the US intervention in 2003). The first lady helped Warda's family settle in Marseilles. Says Warda, "When I saw the refugee camps, I said goodbye to philosophy. For me, it became obvious that I had to focus on matters of human rights and politics." She obtained a law degree in Lyon in 1993 and earned a living as a court interpreter while working for the rights of Assyrian women. Armed struggle became "a necessity" to struggle against "Saddam's atrocious regime. [...] The only solution." She became involved in a clandestine insurrection. "Thousands of Assyrio-Chaldeans fought alongside the Kurds in 2003 without engaging in looting and other immoral acts."

She also says that "the American occupation is an unavoidable consequence, the price of our freedom... for we do not forget that freedom is the most important thing. We had to put an end to Saddam at any price... I said at any price."

(Hear her interviewed by NPR's Scott Simon here.)

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