African immigrant helps shape Macron’s political image

French president’s Senegalese-born press secretary Sibeth Ndiaye plays vital public role

Sibeth Ndiaye: Emmanuel Macron relies on the 37-year-old bundle of energy who stands out among the geeks and hipsters who dominate his entourage. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

Sibeth Ndiaye: Emmanuel Macron relies on the 37-year-old bundle of energy who stands out among the geeks and hipsters who dominate his entourage. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

 

She is a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s inner circle, one of the adoring staff who helped him win the May 7th election.

Sibeth Ndiaye, the president’s Senegalese-born press secretary, became a reluctant star when Yann L’Hénoret’s television documentary, Emmanuel Macron, Behind the Scenes of a Victory, was broadcast the day after the French election.

Ndiaye is omnipresent in the film: scouting locations, crouching to slip through a pack of photographers, chewing out a journalist over a misleading title with the words, “That’s not journalism! It’s monkey-work!”

Macron clearly relies on the 37-year-old bundle of energy. “Sibeth? Where’s Sibeth?” he asks repeatedly. With her radiant smile, voluminous plaited hair and blue Adidas sneakers, Ndiaye stands out among the geeks and hipsters who dominate his entourage.

The camera loves her almost as much as it loves Macron. Social media raved: “She’s the star”, “The revelation of this report”, and “What a gem!”

Ndiaye seems embarrassed by the attention. She has given only one interview, by email to Jeune Afrique magazine, between the two rounds of the election.

Family legend has it that Ndiaye’s German-Togolese mother, Mireille, read an article about the warrior queens of Casamance, southern Senegal, when she was pregnant. The family voted to name the infant she carried Sibeth, after a queen.

Dakar origins

Mireille Ndiaye later became president of the constitutional council in Senegal. Ndiaye’s father, Fara, was number two in the former president Abdoulaye Wade’s Senegalese democratic party. She grew up in an affluent neighbourhood of Dakar.

“Our parents are no longer with us, but they must be very proud of Sibeth today,” her sister Fari told Le Monde. “Especially Papa, since she’s the only child who followed his path in politics.”

After school at the Institution Jeanne d’Arc in Dakar, Ndiaye went alone to study in Paris. When Jean-Marie Le Pen, then leader of the extreme right-wing Front National (FN), made it to the run-off in the 2002 presidential election, she was so appalled that she joined the socialist party.

Ndiaye earned a master’s degree in the economics of health at the University of Paris. She worked for Claude Bartolone, a prominent socialist politician, then joined the staff of Arnaud Montebourg, the economy minister who was replaced by Macron in 2014.

Ndiaye followed Macron from the economy ministry to his new-found movement, En Marche! in April 2016. She told Jeune Afrique she was attracted by his “determination to overcome divisions, to try something else, the feeling that things couldn’t go on the same way, that politicians needed to reflect on the world and its evolution”.

Ndiaye was impressed by something Macron said at the first meeting she attended with him: “Don’t ever tell me that we can’t do something because it’s never been done that way before.”

Language and poetry

The press secretary shares the president’s love of the French language and poetry. “When my mother died, he was thoughtful to give me Roland Barthes’s book Diary of Mourning, Ndiaye said. “I kept it by my bedside for many months.”

Ndiaye became a naturalised French citizen in June 2016. On the day of Macron’s inauguration, she tweeted a photograph of the French tricolour billowing beneath the Arc de Triomphe, with the caption: “Look at this flag in the wind. Feel a shiver of pride to belong to such a beautiful nation.”

By giving real responsibility to ethnic minorities, Macron has set an example in a country where unemployment among young Africans and Arabs is extremely high. Earlier this week, Mounir Mahjoubi (33), who had been in charge of digital technology for Macron’s campaign, was appointed secretary of state for the internet.

But Ndiaye says she does not want to be seen as a model. “My career has been the result of beautiful encounters with people who believed in me, and I always tried to be worthy of their confidence,” she says. “It’s enough to come across the right people, those who don’t see the colour of your skin, your social origin or academic record, for everything to change.”

Macron has said that, unlike his predecessor, he will speak rarely to the press. “Macron-mania” is still at full tilt, but journalists have grumbled about limited access to the Élysée since his election. The government spokesman stressed the necessity of preserving  the “confidentiality” of government deliberations after the first cabinet meeting on Thursday.

Ndiaye may find it difficult to reconcile the demands of a voracious press with the new president’s desire to maintain distance. In the Senegalese dialect Diola, Sibeth means “who has already won many battles”.

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