A French Education Minister Who Knows Immigrants’ Struggles

6:28 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments


By Aida Alami
PARIS — IN late January, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem sat in her office lined with gold leaf in the 18th-century Hôtel de Rothelin-Charolais, reflecting on the identity crisis among young French Muslims.

“When these young people feel frustrated with school, they look for an identity elsewhere and put forward their religious identity,” said the 36-year-old Moroccan immigrant, the first female education minister in France. “It is not surprising that they are impervious to republican values.”

Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem has for some time been considered one of the rising stars of the country’s governing Socialist Party. Today, as France looks to its schools to help heal religious and racial divisions, she is under pressure to prove that her lofty status is deserved.

She would certainly seem to be better qualified than most French ministers to reach out to alienated young people, having spent her early years and many summers speaking Berber on her grandparents’ farm in northern Morocco and growing up poor in France.

Yet Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem refuses to admit that her origins distinguish her from other politicians. She gratefully owes her success, she insists, to the French education system.
“School was always a major player in my personal journey,” said Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem. “It allowed me to open up to the world, and also social mobility. It allowed me to enrich myself, to read, learn and understand.”

AS President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls seek to build up France’s intelligence capabilities and expand police powers in a nationwide crackdown on terrorism, Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem has been given the task of building bridges to the millions of alienated young Muslims in France, some of whom refused to participate in a nationwide minute of silence in memory of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

On Jan. 22, Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem announced a 250 million euro, or $285 million, plan to train educators in discussing racism and transmitting French values of “vivre ensemble,” or living together, in the classroom.

“It is not just family that must transmit values, but school also,” Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem said.
As France reeled from the Charlie Hebdo attacks, reports of young Muslim students refusing to honor the dead highlighted the depth of the divisions in French society.

Those divisions have been well known for years. A 2012 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that France leads Europe in educational inequalities stemming from social and ethnic origins. France’s National Council for the Evaluation of the School System has spoken of “school ghettos,” referring to districts where dropout rates are high and performances exceptionally weak.

Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem said that she, too, could have grown up angry and disaffected, having been raised in poverty and lived on the excluded side of French society.
She said she has fond memories of her childhood in Beni Shiker, a mountain village in Morocco where she says she tended goats and saw perhaps one car a month. Her father worked construction in France, and she and her mother and older sister joined him when she was 4 years old. Her five other siblings were born in France.

Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem grew up in a poor neighborhood of Abbeville, a town in northern France, and then in the city of Amiens. In her family, men and women had traditional roles: The men worked, the women looked after the children. Her mother nevertheless pushed the seven children to study and encouraged the girls to be financially independent.

Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem’s father was strict; she was not allowed to date. Books became her escape, the lack of leisure activities providing a chance to excel at school. She attended law school, then the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies — a training ground for the French political elite — where she met her husband, Boris Vallaud, a confidant of Mr. Hollande who is now deputy chief of staff at the Élysée Palace.

The elections of 2002 were a turning point for her. Her family was never interested in politics. She got the bug that year when the far-right National Front’s presidential candidate won enough votes to enter the runoff. She joined the Socialist Party in the hope of making a difference.
“I was very shy and reserved, so it was a bit contradictory to get into politics,” she said. “I decided to make a lifetime commitment against social injustices, against inequalities, and that is why I am profoundly from the left.”

SHE rapidly climbed the political ladder. From 2004 to 2008, she was in charge of cultural policy in the Rhône-Alpes Region. Through 2013 she was a city councilor in Lyon. In 2007, she was spokeswoman for the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, who lost the election to Nicolas Sarkozy. When Mr. Hollande ran for president in 2012, he appointed Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem his campaign spokeswoman.

After Mr. Hollande’s election victory, he appointed her minister of women’s rights and chief government spokeswoman. Last year, she was named youth and sports minister and rose to education minister in August, a prestigious position held by monumental figures like Jules Ferry, who in the 1880s wrested control of French schooling from the Roman Catholic Church.

Not everyone welcomed her meteoric rise. Muslims in France have criticized her for supporting French secularism to the detriment of Islam. She denies that, of course, and says she loosened restrictions on Muslim mothers wearing head scarves during school activities, like field trips.
Part of the conservative press also savaged her, calling her “Ayatollah,” describing her appointment as a “provocation” and predicting that she would Islamicize French schools. Her reaction was to secure the passage of laws that reflect the secular liberalism of the Socialist Party, including bans on sexual harassment and measures to promote gender equality.

When it comes to the French education system, she makes her loyalty to it clear. French schools will instill the values of the French republic in students, she said. They can do so, however, while acknowledging the experiences of Muslim students whose first inclination is to reject those values. Making a difference, she said, starts with reaching out to those students and recognizing their diversity.

“Endless political debates have stigmatized Muslim families,” she said. “School needs to teach people that everyone is part of one community and that we are all free and equal.”
While she acknowledges that her path is unusual for an immigrant in France, she encourages other children of immigration to dream.

“It is O.K. to fail as long as you try,” she said. “My mother used to always tell me, ‘Don’t worry, life has more imagination than you.’”

A version of this article appears in print on February 21, 2015, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: A French Education Minister Who Knows Immigrants’ Struggles.  Click here to read on the website

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