EXCLUSIVE: Ali Soumare: A French political star
He's been called the new face of France's Socialist party. In March 2010 Ali Soumaré help lead his party to victory against the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) at regional elections. He will now serve as the head of the northern Parisian suburb Val D'Oise at the general council of the Ile-De-France. A spokesperson during the Villers-Le-Bel riots in 2007, Soumaré has not only brought diversity to the group, but has stirred heated debate across the French political landscape.
BY EPEE HERVE
It's late January 2010 in Villiers-Le-Bel. In the northern Parisian suburb, rising political star Ali Soumaré enjoys a hamburger at a local Mc Donald's. The 29-year-old father of one appears stress free. However, just one month later he will be at the centre of controversy after a deputy from the right-wing UMP said he had confused him for a soccer player and two others accused Soumaré of being a repeat offender and delinquent over disputed legal issues.
Can you tell us what you did before politics?
Basically I grew up in Villiers-Le-Bel. I worked in nonprofits. My friends and I created "association Acte 4." We did a lot of work on slavery and the abolition of slavery. Every year on May 22nd, we had plays, concerts and discussions in schools. We talked about the slave trade and we called it "Le devoir d'une nation." Then we created another organization called "Second Generation" after the movie "Fatou la Malienne." We wanted to explain how people can have two cultures in France. They can be French and African with Malian roots, Senegalese etc... without being (culturally) schizophrenic. We used a phrase from the (Moroccan actor) Jamel Debbouzze: "Why will you choose between father and mother?" We talked about our country of origin and the country where we live. The work focused on our citizenship and identity. Today people ask if you are French or Malian, or Muslims etc. We can be a mix of all of that and be a citizen of the Republic. Maybe it's also an issue other countries, but in France it's not easy nor simple. These two arenas, being from here and Malian make me feel better about politics. I thought that it was time to join a political party. Some of my friends choose other ways. My choice was the Socialist party. I was responsible for Villiers-Le-Bel. It's an important part of the Val D'Oise. Then I became a member of the federal authority. I campaigned with François Pupponi and Dominique Strauss-Kahn [prominent Socialist party members]. Now I head the list for the regional election. It's not easy when you're 29 and black from Villiers-Le-Bel and haven't graduated from a prestigious school or university. I'm an original, an atypical candidate.
Why did you really choose the Socialist party?
I felt this party [and Michel Rocard and Dominique Strauss-Kahn] matched my philosophical and political approach. I didn't want to be at the extreme left of politics.
When did you join the Socialist party?
After April 21st 2002 (The Far Right party of Jean-Marie Le Pen was in the second round for the presidential election), so I decided to join the Socialist party. Before that I was in the young socialists' movement. I thought it was time to change things from the inside, so I said to myself, `it's time to take some responsibility.'
Villiers-Le-Bel, (the northern Parisian suburb), was the scene of riots in 2007. What role did you play during the unrest?
I was at the heart of everything because I was the spokesperson for families in Villiers-Le-Bel. They choose me because I was a social worker there and I knew the two young people who died. I still live in Villers-Le-Bel. The riots made me realise that the suburbs could be as a bomb waiting to explode. Being involved in the media, the economy etc... I knew when we acted we could change things.
The government has a plan for the "Banlieues" [suburbs], like a Marshall plan. Do you think this could really change things?
We are still waiting for the plan and for renewed hope for the "Banlieues." I think it's just a lot of words - empty promises - designed to stigmatize people. Just look at the problem with "Identité Nationale" (National Identity). I am aware that the Socialist party didn't do everything, but today the right [UMP] is in power and is responsible. The Left [the Socialist party] knows the mistakes it's made. Even though Ali Soumaré is head of the list in the Val D'Oise, things haven't changed yet. At a meeting of UMP, they said they thought I was a soccer player and Rama Yade [the French minister for sports who is of Senegalese origin] was there with the general secretary of UMP. Then they did a word play on my last name. This doesn't seem like serious activity for a political party. I call it verbal delinquency. This kind of verbal delinquency exists in the UMP and among some in the Socialist party. However, we must fight all racism.
People love to use the word "Diversity." How diverse is the Socialist party?
It's a complicated question because I don't like the term diversity. If you talk about non-white, immigrant youth representation, I would say our party must do better. People are aware of the problem, but we must work on it. It means that you should represent everyone. That's not to say that Ali or Mourad should be on the political ticket because of the colour of their skin. But it's true that when you live in Villiers-Le-Bel or when you're a woman, when you don't have a diploma, no prestigious school behind you, or when you're black, it's harder in a country like France.
Have you faced any disrespect inside your own party?
Some blocked me because when you're 29 and unknown, people want to know who you are. However, people changed after they heard me. I remember one man, 60 years old, who didn't vote for me. When I finished my speech he said he didn't vote for me because he didn't know me and I was very young. The other reason was because he thought he could not drink alcohol and eat pork if he voted for me [Soumare is Muslim]. Finally he saw I was the same as everyone else.
In France there is a divide over the Burka. As a Muslim and a politician what do you think about it?
First of all, it concerns 2000 or 3000 people and there are around 60 million people in France. I call it a distraction. In the context of what we are dealing with I mean the economy, the financial crisis, problems with the suburbs (Banlieues), it seems that we want to ignore these issues. The French population as a whole is sick and we are focusing on certain poor populations to avoid the real question. We're mixing up different things. People can think France's issues are caused by immigration or Muslims. However, this causes strife among the French population.
How do you see your future?
As a pioneer who is a part of the process of the emancipation of black people, just like Harry Roselmack [Roselmack was the first black journalist to host the national news on French channel TF1 in 2006] was for television. I want to show you can succeed in politics, in a firm, etc...