Hollande's first cabinet is big on symbols, messages and balance


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The Independent Online

Thirty years ago, a four-year-old Moroccan girl emigrated to France to join her father. Yesterday, she became the official "face" of the new French government.

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, 34, is the youngest member of the cabinet which assembled under the chairmanship of President François Hollande. She is the Minister for Women's Affairs and will be the official spokeswoman for the government and, therefore, the mouthpiece for "Hollandism".

The first Socialist government for 10 years is stuffed with messages and symbols. It is the first government in France, or any large democracy, to be perfectly gender-balanced – 17 men and 17 women. Mr Hollande and his Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, have also reached out to racial minorities, youth and the Eurosceptic wing of the French left.

There is no message more striking than that embodied by Ms Vallaud-Belkacem, after an election in which immigration and Islam were used as cudgels by both the far right and by the centre-right president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Ms Vallaud-Belkacem, beautiful, eloquent, ever-smiling, was one of the stars of the Hollande campaign. She has enjoyed a rapid rise in a political system, and a party, which is generally ill-disposed towards youthful politicians. A married mother of twins, she is a "non-practising Muslim". After winning scholarships to elite colleges in her youth, she calls herself a "pure product of the [egalitarianism] of the [French] Republic". She insisted, however, that she wanted to be judged on her abilities, not on her "triple symbolism" as a young female of North African origin.

President Hollande and Mr Ayrault also made pointed choices in their diplomatic and European team. Both the new Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, and the Europe Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, campaigned for the Non side in the referendum in 2005 which rejected the proposed European constitution. Mr Hollande campaigned strenuously for a Oui vote.

By placing two Nonistes in the foreign ministry, he hopes to heal an open wound on the left. He is also warning his European partners that the new Socialist administration will seek to steer the EU away from free-market dogmatism towards a more interventionist approach to industrial policy and world trade. In both areas, the Hollande-Ayrault government could come into conflict with London and Berlin. Hollande has balanced these choices by putting a convinced European and "liberal" Socialist, Pierre Moscovici, in the Finance Ministry. Mr Moscovici repeated Mr Hollande's campaign pledge that the new government will refuse to ratify the EU fiscal discipline treaty signed by 25 countries in March unless a new "chapter" is added on growth-promotion policies. His pragmatic and pro-European presence in the finance ministry is, nonetheless, a signal that Hollande may be open to compromise on the form of a growth package, if not the substance .

At the same time, Mr Moscovici tried to reassure markets yesterday that the Hollande administration regarded "debt" and "deficits" as the "enemy" of growth and social progress.