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Human rights disappear in French cabinet reshuffle

world Updated: Jun 24, 2009 16:56 IST
Estelle Shirbon

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has used a cabinet reshuffle to scrap the human rights portfolio two years after he created it, a move that reflects a change of heart about both the post and the woman who held it.

Rama Yade, one of three women from an immigrant background appointed to the government when Sarkozy came to power in 2007, was moved from human rights to sports in a reshuffle announced late on Tuesday. She was not replaced in her old job.

"It's a huge honour for me, that the president and the prime minister renewed their trust in me by keeping me in the government," Yade said on Europe 1 radio on Wednesday, denying that the move to sports was a demotion.

But human rights activists said they were disappointed.

"This is a political signal that the government has given up on promoting human rights as a top priority," said Jean-Marie Fardeau, director of the French arm of Human Rights Watch.

Yade, a woman of Senegalese origin, was only 30 when she joined the government. The only black person in the cabinet, she also stood out because of her striking looks and frank talk.

During a visit to Paris by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in December 2007, Yade said: "France is not a doormat on which a leader can come and wipe from his feet the blood of his crimes."

But she angered Sarkozy in December 2008 by refusing to run for a seat in the European parliament and quickly suffered the consequences when days later her boss, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, said publicly he thought her post wasn't much use.

"I think I was wrong to ask (Sarkozy) for a secretary of state for human rights. It was a mistake," Kouchner said.

Those words, from a man who rose to fame as the founder of aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, went down badly with public opinion. Kouchner's popularity dropped while Yade's rose.

Yet Sarkozy did not forgive her for resisting him over the European elections, although he could not sack her because polls show the public love her and it may have been awkward to get rid of the only black minister. Instead, she was marginalised.

She hinted at the frustrations of her old job when she said on Wednesday she would at least have "a real budget" for sports.

But Fardeau of Human Rights Watch said it was a shame the post had been scrapped as Yade and her team had been doing good work on women's and children's rights despite a tight budget.

"At the same time, we were never fooled by the creation of this human rights post. We have always judged the government on its actions and will keep doing so," he told Reuters.

Opposition politician Cecile Duflot, of the Greens, said that in any case the government was in no position to lecture other countries about human rights given its record at home.

"Instead of lecturing others we should be looking at our own policies, for example at how we treat our prisoners," she said on France Info radio, referring to overcrowding, poor hygiene and a wave of inmate suicides blighting French prisons.