PARIS -- President Nicolas Sarkozy sent a strong signal to France's disaffected minorities yesterday by appointing an outspoken advocate of Muslim women and a woman of Senegalese origin to his government -- among the country's most diverse ever.
As junior minister for city policy, feminist activist Fadela Amara will oversee the renovation of dilapidated housing estates where many immigrants live -- neighborhoods similar to the one where she grew up with her Algerian immigrant parents.
Senegalese-born Rama Yade was appointed to the new post of junior minister for human rights, an area Sarkozy has identified as a priority for his month-old government, which he reshuffled and expanded after his conservative party did not fare as well as expected in weekend parliamentary elections.
The nomination of three women with roots in Africa -- his current justice minister, Rachida Dati, is of North African origin -- is unprecedented in France, where previous governments had few nonwhites. The appointments highlight Sarkozy's determination that the corridors of power should better reflect France's ethnic and religious diversity and have more women.
They were also seen as an attempt by the blunt conservative to mend fences with poor immigrant neighborhoods where he is widely reviled for his tough stance against delinquency and illegal immigration. In 2005, he described young troublemakers in a Paris suburb as "scum" -- a comment that helped fuel three weeks of rioting in housing projects across France.
In another first, a woman was nominated to the Finance Ministry. Former lawyer and two-time Cabinet minister Christine Lagarde replaces Jean-Louis Borloo, who was promoted to de facto deputy prime minister, heading a broad ministry that includes the environment, another of Sarkozy's priorities. Borloo took over from Alain Juppe, who resigned after he lost in the weekend elections.
France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe -- about 5 million -- and has wrestled with how to integrate them without weakening the secular traditions that are a foundation of the French state. Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, pushed through legislation to force Muslim girls to take off their head scarves in public schools, responding to concerns that Muslim fundamentalism and tensions stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were finding their way into classrooms.
Amara is the founder of "Ni Putes, Ni Soumises" -- "Neither a Whore nor Submissive" -- an outspoken group fighting to improve the lot of Muslim women and girls in impoverished neighborhoods. A defender of secularism and of the head scarf ban, Amara said Sarkozy respected her independence and outspokenness.
"I am a thorn in the side of both the right and the left, an honest woman who doesn't hesitate to speak my mind," she said on France-Info radio.
Amara said her priorities would be improving housing and fighting joblessness, which in many poor neighborhoods is twice the national average of about 8 percent, and even higher than that among youths.
Malek Boutih, of the opposition Socialists, called Amara "an exceptional woman" and said the post will give her the power to improve the lives of project dwellers.
"It is the first time that the person who is going to be dealing with them comes from there and is not from the other side of the barrier," Boutih told France-Info radio.
Ahmed El Keiy, editor in chief of Beur FM, a station aimed at France's North African population, called her appointment "a laudable effort to reach out" to minorities but warned that it might prove more symbolic than effective.
"She is a grass-roots activist, but she'll have to prove she has the skills to be a junior minister," he said in a telephone interview.
Yade is the daughter of a prominent Senegalese diplomat and a rising star in Sarkozy's UMP party. The telegenic 30-year-old, with her braided dreadlocks, stands out in the sea of mostly middle-aged white men who still dominate French politics, even though the percentage of women in Parliament grew in the weekend elections.