The portraits of her predecessors line the hall of her new office: women for the most part, in their 50s and all white. An austere group that will soon be spiced up by the exotic face of Norway’s first black cabinet minister, Manuela Ramin-Osmundsen. The 44-year-old from the French overseas department of Martinique is also the first person of foreign origin to join the ranks of a Norwegian government, after Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg last week appointed her minister of children and equality. Her appointment has ruffled the feathers of some in Norway, in particular among the far-right Progress Party.
Ramin-Osmundsen, who was granted a Norwegian passport earlier this month, was immediately accused of allegiance to a “foreign power”, of not being aware of the real problems ethnic minorities face even though she has lived in Norway for 16 years, and of failing in a previous public appointment. Sitting on the edge of the sofa almost apprehensively, as though she has yet to take ownership of her new office, Ramin-Osmundsen welcomes her visitors with a broad and easy smile. Her former colleagues say that she can be authoritarian, a characteristic that sets her apart in a country that is accustomed to flat hierarchies and consensus.
The mother of three children and married to a native Norwegian, Ramin-Osmundsen has long since adopted the customs and traditions of her new home. She has been seen celebrating Norway’s national holiday wearing a ‘bunad’, the traditional national costume, and enjoying the country’s pristine nature by hiking in the mountains under rugged conditions. “I have three identities: Martinique, France and Norway,” she says. Ramin-Osmundsen comes from a comfortable background. Her father was an engineer, her mother a hospital director, and she grew up in Martinique and Paris.
Moving to Oslo:
After earning a PhD in law from Sorbonne University in Paris, she moved to Oslo in 1991 to join her husband Terje Osmundsen, a former government adviser. Norway had at the time just begun to open its doors to immigrants. “I was the object of a certain curiosity. It didn’t bother me, in the sense that I’m able to shake off the little things that are a bit annoying and just look forward,” she says. In the beginning she held down various small jobs, and Norway’s rejection of European Union membership in a 1994 referendum dashed her hopes of seeing her law degree recognized in her new home. Instead, she turned her focus to the fight against ethnic discrimination, and founded the Center Against Ethnic Discrimination in Oslo which she headed from 1998 until 2002.
She was later appointed to top positions at Norway’s Directorate of Immigration, and held the top job for several weeks before she was pressured to leave in May 2006 after a scandal involving residency permits that were granted to Iraqi Kurds against the government’s instructions. In her new job as a minister for the Labor party, she will be in charge of implementing a new Norwegian law that requires publicly listed companies to have at least 40 percent women on their boards of directors as of January 1, 2008. She also hopes to change Norwegians’ perception of immigration, to make it a “positive phenomenon”. “When you arrive in a country, you arrive with your heart,” she says. “Every country really has something to gain from stimulating and using its newcomers in a positive way because they arrive full of hope.”