“France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It guarantees equality before the law for all citizens without distinction of origin, race or religion.” Thus began, until 2018, the first article of the French Constitution. But that year, all the deputies of the National Assembly voted in favor of deleting the term “race” and, instead, adding another: “sex”. At that time, a renowned historian, Pap Ndiaye, dares to say that he thinks it is a “regression” that the word race has been withdrawn. “It is true that the notion has been invalidated from a scientific point of view, but it continues to influence the organization of society,” he defends. Ndiaye believes that what is a “nice gesture” can have “negative effects” in the fight against racism. Four years later, Ndiaye has been appointed Minister of Education by Emmanuel Macron and the entire French press agrees: it is the biggest surprise of the new French executive. Because of his origin (African), because of the unexpectedness of his appointment (he was not in the pools) and because of his career (he has an impeccable academic record and has no political sponsors).
Born to a Senegalese father and a French mother, Ndiaye, 56, is seen as a diplomatic man of consensus compared to his predecessor, Jean Michel Blanquer, who dismissed the mandate intensified by strikes and criticism from the entire educational community, fostered by its management of the Covid protocols. The current head of Education knows the world of blackboards and desks well. His mother was a professor of Natural Sciences; his partner, Jeanne Lazarus, is head of the Sociology department at Sciences Po in Paris and he himself taught for years at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
His first posting as Minister of Education was to a very symbolic place, the Bois-d’Aulne institute, in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a city of about 30,000 inhabitants north of the capital. There, in October 2020, the history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded for having shown some cartoons of Muhammad in class. Most of Paty’s colleagues have not yet recovered from the trauma of an incident that the former head of Education, Blanquer, described as “the teachers’ 11S.” “When I took office, I thought of Samuel Paty,” said Ndiaye. “Because he was murdered, of course, but also because he was a historian, like me. I have reread the ‘Color Negro’ [Paty’s university thesis], and I have found some of my interests as a researcher. Being a minister, I thought I would have to talk about him and inaugurate my mandate by coming here to talk to you”.
Tidiane N’Diaye, Pap Ndiaye’s father, was the first student from sub-Saharan Africa to graduate as an engineer from the National School of Bridges and Roads in Paris. In the capital he met Simone and the two had two children, Pap and Marie. The little sister devoted herself to literature; At only 17 years old, she published her first novel and in 2009 she received the Goncourt award for ‘Three Strong Women’. Both brothers adopted the surname of their father – who abandoned them when they were very young and whom they have only seen on a few occasions – in different ways. She chose NDiaye. Pap only removed the apostrophe: “He was impractical,” he claimed. And, while Marie abandoned her studies to dedicate herself to writing, her brother was an outstanding student at some of the most prestigious public institutions in France and the United States.
“I realized when I was 25 years old that I was black.” At that age, the now Minister of Education obtained a scholarship to the University of Virginia -years later he would discover that they had given it to him based on the principle of positive discrimination- And it is there, in the United States and not in France, where he understands that skin color is a reason for violence, but also for mobilization, much more than in their country of origin. “I began to think about the racial question. 30 years ago, that topic was marginal in the university field in France,” he said in another interview.
Upon his return from the US, five years later, he began working at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS), where he specialized in racism and, above all, racial discrimination in France and America. He was one of the first in France to deal with racism linked to colonialism. He was one of the first in France to deal with racism linked to colonialism and is a specialist in Black Studies, which investigates the history and culture of the African diaspora. A vital journey that has led Ndiaye, author of the celebrated essay The Black Condition, to have been branded by different political representatives of the French extreme right as “indigenist” or an “anti-white radical” and “anti-police”.
Its objective is to write the history of France without erasing from it the most painful aspects, linked to colonization and immigration. Because France is still, even if it is taboo to say so, a country where racism is the order of the day. According to the latest report from the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, with data from 2020, 56% of descendants of immigrants from sub-Saharan African countries have felt discriminated against at school and 49.9% at work. . Ndiaye himself starred in an anecdote that explains, at a glance, that normalized racism in France. In a municipal library, they offered to enroll in a French improvement course. “Once, nothing happens, but if it happens a million times, it’s unbearable. Being French, still, is being white,” he said then.
In 2019, he was appointed scientific advisor for the exhibition ‘The Black Model’ at the Musée d’Orsay, dedicated to the representation of black men and women in the History of Art. The Museum, which had to change the title of many works exhibited because they contained the word “black”, also restored dignity to some models that had been practically anonymous until then, such as the Haitian Jospeh, the protagonist of The Portrait of Joseph, by Géricault and who also posed for the painter in the famous painting The Raft of the Medusa. Following his collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay, in 2021 Ndiaye was appointed director of the National Museum of the History of Immigration, a kind of ‘ugly brother’ of the French museums, which was previously also called the Museum of the Colonies and the Museum of African Art. and oceanic. His arrival at the art gallery is a reunion with his history, with his past.
That Pap Ndiaye is Minister of Education is an act of justice or, at least, a symbol. The former socialist deputy Jean-Christophe Cambadélis wrote it days ago in Le Monde. “His nomination sends a signal to all men and women of migrant origin. A journey like his is possible, with a part of exemplary and sacrifice.”
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