Pap Ndiaye, a historian specialising in minorities who currently heads the museum of the history of immigration in Paris, is President Emmanuel Macron’s surprise choice to head the French education ministry.
Whereas most of the top ministerial posts in Macron’s new cabinet that aims to take the government into parliamentary elections next month went according to script, Ndiaye’s nomination was a surprise to most observers.
His appointment carries on a tradition for Macron of taking prominent French personalities from outside politics to lead ministries, after he named star defence lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti justice minister in 2020.
Ndiaye is a historian with an international profile, specialising in the social history of the United States and minorities, who was named to lead the Museum of the History of Immigration last year.
He will now need to use all his experience and knowledge for taking on the new challenge of the education ministry, which has seen major tensions in the last years between his predecessor, Jean-Michel Blanquer, and teachers.
Born outside Paris to a Senegalese father and French mother, Ndiaye was for many years a professor at the elite Sciences Po university in Paris.
“In the field of history, he is someone who has been innovative and able to show a new way of understanding the past,” said historian Pascal Blanchard.
“He’s a teacher who knows what it’s like to be in front of a class of students,” he told AFP, adding, “In a diverse society, it is important to have someone who is attentive to diversity.”
‘Field of possibilities’
Ndiaye first gained national prominence with his 2008 work “The Black Condition, an essay on a French minority.”
“My objective was to provide arguments and knowledge as robust as possible to young people who lack solid references,” he told AFP in March 2021, when he took over at the immigration museum.
“It seemed to me that it was part of my role as a teacher to offer these foundations,” he said.
He said at the time that his appointment at the museum should open “the field of possibilities” to young “non-whites”, while emphasising that his appointment was due to a long career as an academic.
“I am not blind to, and don’t turn my back on, questions of symbol. I also apply the same to the colour of my skin.”
In 2019, he was a consultant for an exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris on black models, and in 2020 he co-authored a report on diversity at the Paris Opera.
His sister is the prominent French novelist and playwright Marie Ndiaye.
Some on the French left reacted with astonishment that the celebrated historian of social change was now in the government.
“I am amazed. I did not see him in there at all,” said Alexis Corbiere of the far-left France Unbowed party. He said the “media stunt” would not defuse anger within the French education system.
SNES-FSU, the main secondary school teachers’ union, welcomed the appointment of Ndiaye “as a break with Jean-Michel Blanquer in more ways than one”.
But it also warned that education “is not governed solely by symbols” and that rapid responses were needed “particularly in terms of wages”.