France’s new education minister – young, female and Moroccan-born – has become a lightning rod for all that is nasty in French politics.
Since she took over the job two weeks ago, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, 36, has been besieged by racist and sexist comments and malicious rumours on social media. Her appointment has been attacked by magazines of the far right, and the less far right, as a “provocation” and a politically-correct piece of social engineering by President François Hollande.
Two new false rumours about Ms Vallaud-Belkacem are being pedalled this week by right-wing websites and on Facebook and Twitter.
A forged letter carrying the minister’s signature calls for primary school pupils to be given lessons in Arabic each week in the name of good community relations. A fake identity card appears to “prove” that Ms Vallaud-Belkacem adopted an Arab identity to further her political career. The card suggests that her real name is “Claudine Dupont”.
Ms Vallaud-Belkacem has started criminal proceedings, but her advisers say that the volume and tenacity of the lies threatens to overwhelm them. As soon is one is shot down, another springs up.
Although the rumours seem to begin with the far right, they are often passed on by moderate right-wing individuals and websites as if they were true. A parliamentarian of the main centre-right party, Isabelle Balkany, retweeted the “Arab language classes” letter at the weekend before she realised that it was false.
The campaign against Ms Vallaud-Belkacem is reminiscent of a barrage of attacks last year against the French Guiana-born justice minister, Christiane Taubira. The two women are detested on the hard right of French politics not just because of their racial background.
Ms Taubira pushed through the law legalising gay marriage last year. Ms Valaud-Belkacem, as a junior minister for women’s rights, helped to devise an experimental programme in which some primary schools tried to combat gender stereotypes. The programme, though clumsy, was widely misrepresented on the far right and on the radical Catholic right as the spearhead of an attempt to “abolish differences in gender”.
Ms Vallaud-Belkacem’s appointment as France’s first woman education minister in a reshuffle two weeks ago was taken by many right wingers – even relatively moderate ones – as a “provocation”. This was the word used by the far-right magazine, Minute, on its front cover. A supposedly more moderate magazine, Valeurs Actuelles, carried an evil-looking image of the new minister with the front-page headline “L’Ayatollah”.
Ms Vallaud-Belkacem tried to respond with an intellectual joke. She said that buying Minute was better value than buying books by the existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. “For the price of a newspaper you get both Nausea and Dirty Hands (two Sartre titles).”
The new minister has also been the object of sexist attacks. Franck Keller, a centre-right councillor in Neuilly-sur-Seine, where Nicolas Sarkozy was once mayor, tweeted an alluring picture of Ms Vallaud-Belkacem and the message: “I wonder what attributes persuaded Hollande to give her a big ministry.”
The education minister is a rare symbol of political success in France by someone from a poor background. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem was born in 1977, the second oldest of seven children in the impoverished village of Bni Chiker in Morocco. Her family emigrated to France to join her father, a labourer, when she was five.
After a brilliant school career in Amiens, she graduated from the Paris Institute of Political Studies in 2002.
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