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The face of the inclusive new France

After Socialist François Hollande’s presidential win in France, his party secured an absolute majority in Parliament. The left now has the biggest concentration of power in recent history: both houses of Parliament, most regions and big cities.

Now it faces the massive task of trying to drag France – and Europe – out of dire economic crisis while promising to mend France’s social, class and race divides.

The 34-year-old Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is the “face” of the new government. She is both minister of women’s rights – a post resurrected after decades of absence – and government spokesperson, hand-picked to embody Hollande’s reforms.

In a country still shell-shocked by a divisive election campaign, marked by the rise of the far right and its anti-immigration discourse, Vallaud-Belkacem’s appointment is symbolic. It is also part of a much-demanded reshaping of government. France’s new Cabinet, with 50% women, is doing far better than the European average of 26% women. In addition, 20% of the new French Cabinet are from ethnic minorities.

Born in rural Morocco, Vallaud-Belkacem arrived in France, aged four, with her mother to join her father, a construction worker. The second of seven children, she grew up on a poor estate on the outskirts of the northern town of Amiens in the Somme. Her parents, as foreigners, did not have the right to vote and the family did not talk politics, except to tut when the far-right Jean-Marie le Pen appeared on television.

Flourished

Vallaud-Belkacem “flourished” at school, as she put it, swayed as much by Voltaire’s Zadig as the Berber songs of her parents. She got French nationality at 18. With scholarships she studied at France’s Institute of Political Science and worked as a jurist.

But when Le Pen shocked France in 2002 by getting through to the final round of the presidential election, knocking out the Socialists, she felt she had to go into politics. Elected councillor in Lyon and rising up the ranks of Lyon’s town hall and the Socialist party, presidential candidate Ségolène Royal made her her spokesperson in 2006. This year Hollande gave her the same post in his own presidential campaign.

Vallaud-Belkacem has fought to dodge the ethnic diversity pigeonhole in politics. “Often I was relegated to my origins, put in the diversity box: ‘You’re the new face of diversity.’ That annoyed me, because I always felt French and suddenly I was being made to feel I wasn’t as French as others.” She deliberately always fought for election in right-wing areas and worked on topics not linked to ethnicity, such as gay rights and bioethics. She now feels she has undone that label.

Her first challenge as women’s minister is to rush through a new sexual harassment law. “We’re creating a criminal law that will cover a maximum of possible situations,” she said.

On France’s persistent male-female pay gap, the first step will be to enforce the existing law, which is often ignored. France has set quotas for women’s presence in boardrooms at 20% by 2012 and 40% by 2017. She thinks the solution is not just quotas at the top, but training and opportunities at the bottom.

Frowned upon

France is often viewed by its neighbours as a beacon for childcare provision for young babies. “Compared to some of our neighbours, it’s not frowned upon to be a mother and work in France,” she said, explaining why France has Europe’s highest birth rate after Ireland.

But in French politics the personal is becoming the political and Vallaud-Belkacem is conscious of the example she sets as a working mother. Married to a civil servant, she has three-year-old twins. With an election campaign and setting up a new ministry, her working hours have been nudging 7am to 11.30pm seven days a week.

“I’m aware that, beyond my own need to find a personal balance, I should be sending a signal to society as women’s minister about the importance of work-life balance.” But how? “It’s difficult,” she said, jumping up for the next meeting, but resolved to carve out time. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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