Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat—A recent opinion poll conducted by a French newspaper showed that Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s new minister of education, had become the country’s second most popular politician, only 15 days after her official appointment.
The 36-year-old Moroccan-born politician is France’s first female education minister, and has blazed a trail through the heart of French politics.
On accepting her appointment in a cabinet reshuffle last week, Vallaud-Belkacem’s eyes welled up during an emotional speech in which she attributed her political success to France’s education system. She has described herself as a “pure product of the [French] Republic,” and an illustration of the “happy integration” of modern France.
Born to a humble family in Bni Chiker, a village in Morocco’s Rif region, in 1977, Vallaud-Belkacem was the second-eldest of seven children. Her family then moved to Amiens, France, to join her laborer father, when she was just four years old.
Without the platform provided by France’s public education system—a true melting pot of different national identities and ethnicities—it would have been impossible for Vallaud-Belkacem to ascend to the political heights she has reached today.
The education portfolio is one of the most senior government posts in France, given the massive budget allotted by the government and the premium placed by Paris on education. Vallaud-Belkacem has previously held a number of other ministerial portfolios, including minister of youth affairs in the government of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and minister of women’s rights in the cabinets of Valls and former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. She also previously held the post of minister of city affairs, beginning her work in Paris as a government spokesperson for the Ayrault government in 2012.
Vallaud-Belkacem began her political career in Lyon—France’s second-largest city. She was elected conseillère générale for the Rhône department in 2008, representing the Socialist Party.
After receiving her degree from the Paris Institute of Political Studies in 2002, she quickly became active in socialist politics, joining the team of Lyon Mayor Gérard Collomb. She held a number of different positions in and around the Rhône–Alpes district over the next couple of years, later coming to national attention as a spokesperson for Ségolène Royal’s presidential campaign in 2007.
This is not the first time that a French woman of Arab origins has been appointed to a preeminent ministerial portfolio. French MEP Rachida Dati previously served as justice minister during the administration of then-President Nicolas Sarkozy. However, while Dati, like Vallaud-Belkacem, is the daughter of a first-generation Moroccan immigrant who came to the Republic looking for a better life, Vallaud-Belkacem is foreign-born.
Vallaud-Belkacem’s political advancement over the past few years can only be attributed to her diligence and excellent performance within the Socialist Party, as well as her superb handling of her previous ministerial portfolios. Vallaud-Belkacem is known for her dedication and commitment, and her aversion to self-publicity.
Those who know her claim that beneath her smile lies a formidable personality, and in particular, an ability to maintain composure under pressure. These are attributes that will serve France’s new education minister well as the country’s far-right media and politicians take aim at her. Elements on the right wing of French politics reacted angrily to her appointment as education minister, describing it as a “provocation,” and a sign of political correctness gone awry.
This week, a forged letter emerged on some websites and social media purportedly carrying the minister’s signature. The letter called for primary school pupils to be given weekly Arab lessons in the name of breaking down “linguistic barriers” and better community relations.
Vallaud-Belkacem is taking legal action over the fake memo, but the speed with which it spread across social media platforms is an indication of the unease felt among France’s far right towards her.
The weekly right-wing magazine Minute sparked a firestorm by labeling her appointment as a “provocation,” and describing her explicitly as the “Moroccan Muslim minister of education.” A more moderate publication, Valeurs Actuelles, described Vallaud-Belkacem as “L’Ayatollah” in a front-page headline following her appointment.
Responding to the racist slurs, Vallaud-Belkacem told the Associated Press: “I call for respect. And I repeat in particular that racism is not an opinion, but a crime.”
What is certain is that after taking up one of the most difficult ministerial portfolios in France, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has her work cut out.