French Education Minister Pap Ndiaye Is at the Center of France’s Culture Wars

French Education and Youth Minister Pap Ndiaye sits for a photo session in Paris on June 9. JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

Under a cloudy sky matching the slate rooftops of Paris, the secretary-general of the Élysée, France’s presidential palace, recited the names of President Emmanuel Macron’s new cabinet in May. One of the names fell like a bomb, sparking a torrent of commentary by parents, teachers, students, and trolls. For one moment, before being eclipsed by a heated parliamentary election, this was the political chatter in France.

The man at the center of the maelstrom, France’s new education minister, cut a low-key figure when he took up his first cabinet post later that day. Pap Ndiaye, a 56-year-old history professor specializing in American politics, looks the very model of a soft-spoken academic in tortoiseshell horn-rimmed glasses. 

Ndiaye is the first Black education minister of France. A similar historical milestone in the United States would have been prominently noted in articles about his sudden rise in politics. But in a country that prides itself on being officially colorblind—to the extent that the government keeps no statistics on the racial or ethnic makeup of its population—this fact was omitted even in press coverage of his critics, who fretted that he would fling wide the doors of French classrooms to American-style “wokisme.” (That word resonates with some French parents and politicians the same way “critical race theory” does with some Americans.)

Macron’s pick for a new education minister was a surprise. Ndiaye represented a sharp U-turn from Jean-Michel Blanquer, France’s longest-serving education minister, who occupied that role throughout Macron’s first five-year term. Blanquer focused on the teaching of basic skills and introduced free breakfasts for children in poor neighborhoods; he may be best known today for a group he co-founded dedicated to French republican principles like secularism and humanism and critical of what they perceive as the contagion of “woke” ideas from American campuses. 

Ndiaye has used his subject matter expertise to interpret U.S. race relations in the French media following incendiary events such as the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 and the murder of George Floyd in 2020. It’s the nexus of America and race that has some French commentators fulminating. Critics view an emphasis on racial matters as a nefarious U.S. import —like Coca-Cola, only with the risk not to the consumer’s waistline but to the national psyche, which they say will be debilitated by American-style culture wars.

Pap Ndiaye visits a school

Ndiaye visits Collège du Bois d’Aulne in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, France, on May 23. Two years prior, schoolteacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by an extremist as he left the school premises after showing his class cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP via Getty Images

Schools are inextricably at the heart of France’s own brand of culture wars—something Ndiaye showed an awareness of in his remarks at the handover ceremony in front of the education ministry. There, he evoked the memory of Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher who was beheaded after showing caricatures depicting the Islamic Prophet Mohammed to his class as part of a discussion on free speech.

Ndiaye characterized himself as the pure product of the French meritocracy, of which he said those public schools are a pillar. “And perhaps I am also a symbol of diversity,” he added. “I don’t draw any pride from that, but rather a sense of duty and the responsibilities that are now mine.”

Ndiaye’s modest demeanor shouldn’t distract from his evident ambition to achieve something grand. France’s education minister works on a vastly larger canvas than his counterpart in the United States, where education is largely run at the state and local level. France operates a highly centralized public education system, with the education ministry managing the nation’s schools from Paris. Ever since waves of immigrants arrived after World War II, during a period the French refer to as the “30 glorious years” of rebuilding and economic expansion, schools have been perceived as imparting certain ideals about French citizenship. Even slight changes to the curriculum may be put under the microscope. 

Being a historian focused on race relations has often put Ndiaye at odds with elements of the French establishment, which prefers to see the country’s governing model as universalist, a French Revolutionary-era concept that all citizens are equal under the law and no group should receive any preferences. Perhaps in response to critics, Ndiaye has cultivated an image of being apolitical. When Macron tapped him to lead a national monument that includes a museum about immigration last year, he told a television interviewer that he hadn’t spoken with the French president about the hot-button issue of modern-day immigration. “I’m not engaged in political life,” he said. “I prefer, and this corresponds with my personality, quite simply, to remain in the position of an attentive observer.”

Pap Ndiaye stands outside a museum

Ndiaye, then-director of the Immigration History Museum, is pictured outside the museum in Paris on March 5, 2021. MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

By any standard, Ndiaye’s rapid elevation from the director of a humble national monument to the head of France’s education ministry marks a leap of faith by Macron, who described Ndiaye as an example of universalism and equal opportunity when they appeared together at an elementary school in Marseille last month. Having survived a recent reshuffling of the president’s cabinet, Ndiaye has moved from managing the Porte Dorée Palace, an institution with around 100 employees and an annual budget of 15 million euros, to leading the country’s largest public institution, with more than 1.2 million employees, an annual budget of more than 55 billion euros, and the responsibility of educating more than 12 million public school students.

Ndiaye (sounds like the English letters “N-D-I”) was born in 1965 to a French mother and a Senegalese father who was studying at a prestigious engineering school that is among the grandes écoles, the French Ivy League. His father returned to Senegal when Ndiaye was 3 years old, and his sister, the award-winning novelist Marie NDiaye, was 1 year old. (The brother and sister style their last name differently.) The children grew up in a home filled with books in Bourg-la-Reine, a comfortably middle-class suburb of Paris where their single mother worked as a middle school science teacher, and they vacationed at their grandparents’ farm in Northern France. His sister remains fiercely loyal. She denounced the right-wing attacks after her brother became the education minister, telling a radio interviewer, “when you accept this kind of mission, you also accept what is most detestable.”

Ndiaye excelled in the country’s rigorously formal education system, eventually earning a doctorate in history from one of the grandes écoles in 1996. As a student, he was briefly a member of the Socialist Party but did not go on to pursue a public political role. Along the way, he received a master’s degree in U.S. history from the University of Virginia. His years in the early 1990s on the campus in Charlottesville, located an hour from the capital of the Confederacy, would prove to be seminal. Although he recalled the time a physical education teacher had discouraged him from training as a swimmer because he “wouldn’t float as well as the other children,” he later said it wasn’t until living in the United States that he reflected upon what it meant to be Black.

Rama Yade, a former French cabinet official who is now a senior director at the Atlantic Council in Washington, attributed some of the criticism of Ndiaye’s appointment to his specialization in U.S. history. “When you have even the smallest commitment to the United States, they think you talk on behalf of Americans,” the Senegalese-born French politician said in a recent phone call. “The French are fascinated by America, but at the same time they are very careful about being under U.S. influence. They want to think that their culture is different from the community-oriented model of the United States.”

Pap Ndiaye

Ndiaye is pictured in Paris on March 6, 2007. STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP via Getty Images

Ndiaye burst onto the wider French cultural scene in 2008—the same year that American voters propelled Barack Obama into the White House as the country’s first Black president—with the publication of his book La Condition Noire (“The Black Condition”), about the situation of Black people in France. This gave him the street cred to become a frequent commentator about Black cultural figures—from his hero Aimé Césaire, the poet and politician from Martinique who co-founded the negritude movement of Black literature in French, to Josephine Baker, the first Black woman and first American to enter the Panthéon, France’s monument to its honored dead. A decade ago, he began teaching U.S. history at the political science university Sciences Po, where his partner and the mother of his two children, Jeanne Lazarus, directs the sociology department. He went on to write more books, including 2012’s Obama dans L’Amerique Noire (“Obama in Black America”) and 2021’s Les Noirs Américains: De l’Esclavage à Black Lives Matter (“Black Americans: From Slavery to Black Lives Matter”).

Regarding the critics of Ndiaye’s appointment, Célia Belin, a French political scientist serving as the interim director for the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, who invited Ndiaye to give a lecture there last year, said, “their racism shows very strongly. Also their anti-Americanism, because they see these ideas as American imports.”

“What’s confusing is that you had in the previous government a line of assertive secularism that was very opposed to any conversation on race, which in the French context is very delicate,” Belin said. “Macron has demonstrated a willingness to tackle some of the most difficult elements of the French colonial period, moving the conversation forward on Algeria and Rwanda. He is a modernizer for France’s history, but not particularly avant-garde on racial justice and postcolonial matters.”

Ndiaye’s first forays outside the ivory tower and into the cultural realm may be what caught Macron’s eye. He advised an art exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay called “Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse” in 2019, a groundbreaking moment in the French art world that became one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. The dust had barely settled when he was tapped to co-write a 66-page report to address diversity at the Paris Opera by the recently installed company director, Alexander Neef, who took up his post as the Black Lives Matter protests were sweeping the globe in 2020.

French critics accused Neef, a German who had spent more than a decade leading the Canadian Opera in Toronto and had a brief stint at the Santa Fe Opera, of importing American-style culture wars. Key conclusions of the report included recruiting more dancers from diverse backgrounds into the ballet school and the corps and eliminating the use of what the report refers to as “blackface,” “yellowface,” and “brownface.” A company representative recently told me the Paris Opera had no plans to ban works from the repertory, as certain critics have charged, but rather the report had prompted long-term actions such as creating the position of a diversity director and contextualizing performances with program notes.

Pap Ndiaye and French President Emmanuel Macron

Ndiaye and French President Emmanuel Macron visit the Ecole Menpenti and its experimental math lab in Marseille, southeastern France, on June 2. The school is part of an experiment that aims for a more fair and inclusive education. SEBASTIEN NOGIER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

At the time the report was issued a year and a half ago, some French academics had recently launched a full-throated cry against what many viewed broadly as identity-based ideologies stemming from American universities. One of the signatories, Nathalie Heinich, a French sociologist, said that she thought Ndiaye’s report for the Paris Opera demonstrated “a sociological misunderstanding of an actual problem” that should be addressed by reducing socioeconomic inequalities. She felt that Ndiaye’s analysis had been influenced by his time living in the United States, with its multicultural social model, “which tends to reduce individuals to their belonging to collective entities.”

French ambivalence toward the United States has existed at least since Alexis de Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s, so it is no surprise that critics have often obsessed over his commentary on U.S. race relations. Ndiaye has not shied away from that ambivalence. Somewhat controversially, for France, he has referred to systemic racism in housing, employment, and in police relations with the Black and immigrant communities. But compared with U.S. academics plowing similar terrain, his views are relatively moderate.

“Personally, I am much more reserved regarding the notion of state racism, which would imply that the entire state would be a racist state,” he told a French public radio program three years ago. “That does not seem accurate to me in France, where there are state institutions that fight racism.” In a televised interview last year, he was critical of using the term “white privilege.” While acknowledging that he felt being Black created a social handicap by setting the bar higher in some domains, he said, “you must have allies, and this term isolates you from allies.”

That moderation hasn’t shielded him from critics. After his appointment, the French conservative student union rushed out a tweet dubbing him racialiste and indigéniste, pejorative terms implying an undue emphasis on race and a view of minorities in modern-day France akin to the Indigenous populations of former colonies.

There were also predictable attacks from the French far right. Marine Le Pen, a National Assembly member for the right-wing National Rally party who lost to Macron in the runoff of the presidential election in April, whipped out a tweet calling the appointment “the last stone in the deconstruction of our country, its values, ​​and its future.” Éric Zemmour of the far-right Reconquest party, a TV commentator-turned-political hopeful who placed a distant fourth in the recent presidential election, said Ndiaye was obsessed with race and “will obviously defend his convictions to the detriment of our children. Here we have, in my opinion, deconstruction in person.”

Pap Ndiaye claps

Ndiaye appears at the handover ceremony after being named minister of education and youth in Paris on May 20. Raphael Lafargue/Reuters

On the other side, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a hard-left political figure who placed third in the presidential race in April, scorned the new cabinet when it was announced in May but singled out Ndiaye as an “audacious” choice—echoing the Revolution-era words of Georges Danton, who called for “audacity, more audacity, always audacity.”

On the political front, Ndiaye has now fully abandoned his long-held neutrality. Via a Twitter account that he created only after becoming a cabinet minister, he has embraced his new role with gusto: posing for photos at the ballot box, defending his predecessor after he was publicly attacked on the street, meeting with his counterparts from Ukraine and Haiti, making multiple appearances with Macron, and even urging voters not to support Le Pen’s party in the parliamentary elections.

Some role models whom Ndiaye has referenced over the years—Frantz Fanon, Césaire, and Léopold Sédar Senghor—were Black French colonial authors who in one way or another turned to politics. Fanon, a psychiatrist and political philosopher from Martinique who did much of the groundbreaking work on postcolonial thought, supported the armed struggle against France in Algeria and worked on the successful campaign for the French National Assembly of his friend and fellow Martinican, Césaire. Senghor became the first president of Senegal and, later, the first African writer elected to the venerable Académie Française.

There may be an additional clue to Ndiaye’s sudden transformation in some earlier comments he made about the scarce diversity in France’s political class. During a talk at the American Library in Paris in February, to mark Black History Month in the United States, he pointed out that when Obama was elected president there were thousands of African American officials, from municipal government to the U.S. Senate. 

Pap Ndiaye speaks to cameras

Ndiaye campaigns in support of Hervé Berville in the second constituency of Côtes-d’Armor in Dinan, France, on June 8. Martin Bertrand/Reuters

“I would argue as a historian,” he said, “that the first step is to thicken the group of elected officials from which one day an exceptionally gifted person, preferably a woman, will be elected president. But there is this first step that I think is needed in French politics.” 

This raises the question of where he views himself in this pecking order. Does the political neophyte see himself as carving out a deeper bench to create an opportunity for a future star? Or is Macron, who awarded Ndiaye the French Legion of Honor in January, grooming him for higher office?

Ndiaye declined to say in a recent email whether he would consider a future political career, adding that he was fully focused on his new role, which was the “job of a lifetime.”

Ultimately, Ndiaye’s trajectory, and that of any others he hopes will help pave the way, may well depend on how he balances his inclinations toward both American-style multiculturalism and French universalism.