John Lichfield: Najat Vallaud-Belkacem - the young Muslim woman at the heart of France's modern regime

World Focus

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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 yesterday 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 French government for 10 years is stuffed – some say over-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, Ms Vallaud-Belkacem is a "non-practising Muslim". After winning scholarships to elite colleges, she calls herself a "pure product of the [egalitarianism] of the [French] Republic". She insisted yesterday, however, that she wanted to be judged on her abilities, not on her "triple symbolism" as a young female of North African origin.

The cabinet is taking a 30 per cent pay cut in a show of solidarity with voters and strict rules have been imposed on travel expenses and the acceptance of gifts while in office. 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 French left. He is also warning his European partners that the new Socialist administration will seek to steer the European Union away from free-market dogmatism towards a more interventionist approach.

In both areas, the Hollande-Ayrault government could come into conflict with London and Berlin. President Hollande has balanced these choices by putting a "liberal" Socialist, Pierre Moscovici, in the Finance Ministry.

Fresh faces: Hollande's new cabinet

Christiane Taubira, Justice Minister

Celebrated for her flights of oratory and volcanic temper, Ms Taubira was raised in Cayenne, in French Guiana, by a single mother of six. A trained sociologist and economist, her appointment to head the justice system took pundits by surprise.

Pierre Moscovici, Finance Minister

A long-time supporter of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, he became Hollande's campaign manager after DSK's disgrace. One of the few French politicians with good English, he is on the reformist, market-friendly, pro-European right of his party.

Marisol Touraine, Health and Social Affairs Minister

After two decades as a backroom official, Ms Touraine has one of the most sensitive jobs in the cabinet. An expert on welfare, she must deliver the promised "reform of Sarkozy's reform" of the state pension system – without busting the budget.

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