France’s First Female Education Minister Under Fire Over Race, Gender

France's new education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a 36-year-old rising star in the Socialist Party, has been targeted with racially-based verbal attacks and even being nicknamed "Ayatollah" by a conservative newspaper, according to the Associated Press.

"I call for respect," she told The Associated Press in an email. "And I repeat in particular that racism is not an opinion, but a crime." The Morocco-born Vallaud-Belkacem, who doesn't publicly speak about her religion, is seen as an easy target to attack the unpopular Socialist government led by President Francois Hollande.

The fact that Vallaud-Belkacem is a Muslim woman in a sea of mostly white, Catholic, male politicians, does not keep her from being an outspoken defender of racial and gender equality. She is in full support of gay marriage and took issue with a national debate on the negative impact of halal meat. She has been the butt of allegations such as changing her name to a more ethnic-sounding one to get promoted and has been called a "smiling Vietnamese Communist". Legal action was threatened when the newspaper Minute called her religious and ethnic background a "provocation", according to the Associated Press.

This is not the first racially-based move on the part of the newspaper. It put black Justice Christiane Taubira on its cover with the caption, "Taubira Finds her Banana" and "Crafty as a Monkey". In French, ‘getting your banana back' is roughly the equivalent of ‘recovering the spring in your step.'

Taubira tweeted in support of Vallaud-Belkacem: "They must have nothing in their heads, be empty in their heart, and have hardened souls. Najat, you're flying high with our ambitions for schools. Thanks."

The newspaper's upcoming cover pictures Vallaud-Belkacem with a sinister look and is captioned "Ayatollah". A magazine spokesperson said that the magazine was only making a political criticism.

"We speak of ‘Ayatollah' with no reference to the Muslim religion whatsoever … We're concerned that her nomination poses a problem as she's pursuing an ideology in schools that worries us," Yves de Kerdrel told the AP without elaborating.

France has the largest population of Muslims in Western Europe with approximately 5 million. More than 4,000 people have signed a petition in her defense, which was issued by French rights group SOS Racism.

Some commentators insist the criticism against her has nothing to do with religion or her sex. "She just has no competence in education." Versailles deputy mayor Francois-Xavier Bellamy said.

In an article for The Guardian, Anne Penketh writes that far right-wing groups threatened more social unrest to protest Vallaud-Belkacem's promotion to her new position as education minister. Ludovine dela Rochère, leader of the Manif Pour Tous, an anti-gay organization, was "horrified".

Last year, 275 primary schools were part of an experimental reform with the purpose of overcoming gender stereotyping. This experiment was backed by Vallaud-Belkacem, who was vilified for her stance. The French newspaper Le Figaro accused her of "importing the controversial gender theory from the US".

Vallaud-Belkacem is the first woman to hold the office of education minister in France and holds French and Moroccan dual citizenship. France 24 TV predicts "a brilliant and so-far unstoppable career for the telegenic protégée of President François Hollande."

09 5, 2014
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