Fleur Pellerin has been a minister in the French government of prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault for just two months. Her cabinet department is in charge of small and medium enterprises, innovation, and the digital economy. At 39, she is the first person of Asian descent to become a government minister in France. But that did not make news for long. The Socialist cabinet in charge of Europe's second-biggest economy since last spring was being watched for how it tackled the financial and unemployment crisis gripping the continent, not for the ethnic origin of its ministers. Until Monday, that is. That's when a top journalist shocked the nation -- even one where American-style political correctness is not widespread -- by essentially asking Pellerin if she got the job because she was hot or because she was a minority hire.
"Do you really know why you've been chosen? Because you're a beautiful woman from a diversity background? Because you belong to a little-visible minority? Because you are the proof of a successful adoption? Because you are a strong signal to Asian markets? Or also because you are competent? Do you really know?" was Daniel Schick's opening question in an interview on radio network Europe 1.
The hard-working, hyper-qualified Pellerin, who after a top-notch academic career graduated from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the elite school that traditionally produces many members of France's ruling class, is Korean-French. She was born Kim Jong-suk in South Korea in 1973, was adopted at the age of six months by a French family, grew up in Versailles near Paris, and before entering politics was a top magistrate in the Cour des Comptes, the independent body that verifies the state's finances.
"We are off to very, very bad start," Pellerin laughed icily in response to the question. "I would hope the president and prime minister appointed me because I had certain competences."
Schick isn't a professional radio provocateur like Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh in the U.S. He is a serious journalist, who has hosted several news programs during a career that has spanned more than 20 years. But evidently he is not immune from what a women's issues site, Aufemimin.com, called "the ordinary sexism of the French."
And he wasn't done asking appalling questions, either. "You and your spouse are a mixed couple. Have you been the victims of staring?" he said, referring to Pellerin's marriage to an ethnic Frenchman. The minister didn't miss a beat: "You mean mixed as in heterosexual?" Then she observed that "I do not feel like I'm the representative of any group. (...) It's not an issue at all."
It's true, however, that France does not have many people in positions of power who don't look like the average white French person. "I do understand that I can represent a symbol in the eyes of people of Asian origin, and I accept that gladly," said Pellerin. Schick then went on to ask her about the issues of the day, as if nothing had happened.
But it didn't take long for les internautes, the French term for netizens, to react. Many took to Twitter, where Socialist senator Laurence Rossignol called Schick "a dangerous mysoginist" and asked Europe 1 to fire him because "he deserves it." while noting that if "I had been in her shoes I would have slapped him."
Europe 1, contacted by French news site 20 Minutes, had no comment.