Mounir Mahjoubi gestures as he answers questions during an interview at the Economy Ministry in Paris on Thursday. PHOTO: BERTRAND GUAY / AFP
The 34-year-old web entrepreneur was one of the first in President Emmanuel Macron's government to establish a rapport with the demonstrators at a time when most of the political class was running scared.
He has since been trying to take the heat out of French public debate in the street and on the internet as France battles an outpouring of anti-Semitism unseen since World War 2. With swastikas being scrawled in areas around Paris — often discovered after yellow vest demonstrations — and a Jewish academic mobbed by hostile protesters in the street, Mahjoubi has found himself on the frontlines.
He has called out Twitter especially for ignoring calls to work with French regulators on establishing filters for hate speech.
“I am very angry with them,” the minister told AFP in an interview last week, reading aloud some of the endless stream of racist and homophobic messages he has received, especially since going public about his homosexuality last year.
Mahjoubi has vowed heavy fines for online platforms that fail to remove hate speech in the 24 hours after it has been reported by users. He has also used his social media savvy and humble origins in a poor immigrant family — his father was a house painter and his mother a cleaner — to try and bridge the divide between Macron's little-loved government and disaffected voters.
But even as he tackles the enormous task of curbing incendiary hate speech, the self-made minister is eyeing his next challenge.
In the interview, he made no secret of his ambition to became the French capital's first mayor of Arab origin. Macron's Republic on the Move party has yet to pick a candidate to try to unseat Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo in next year's elections. But Mahjoubi, who was elected to parliament in the city's multi-ethnic 19th district in 2017, has his pitch ready, even if he has yet to declare his candidacy.
“My parents came from Morocco with nothing in the 70s and their son became a minister, purely thanks to Paris,” he said. “I want the city to do that for everybody.”
The self-described geek, who began working at 16 in the call centre of an internet service provider, has extensive experience working on internet safety. During Macron's election campaign he helped limit the damage caused by an intense hacking attack which was blamed on a Russian-affiliated group.
Mahjoubi was one of several high-achieving technocrats appointed to the new government, and in the follow-up parliamentary elections, he toppled Socialist Party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, one of several heavyweights ousted by Macron's centrist insurgents.
In the eyes of many voters, however, the newcomers turned out no better. Distrust of politicians hit a new low as the new ministers adopted the lofty language and big-spending ways of their predecessors — and the president himself let rip with a series of remarks seen as disparaging the poor.
“Yes, it's true, we continued talking in a way which was sometimes unintelligible… and made people feel humiliated by this top-down language,” admitted Mahjoubi, who studied at the prestigious Sorbonne and Sciences Po universities while launching an array of tech start-ups.
Faced with the worst crisis of Macron's presidency the affable young minister remained glued to social media and attempted to foster dialogue.
In one of his first forays into yellow vest territory, he popped up among the viewers of a Facebook Live broadcast to ask if the host Maxime Nicolle, a radical protest leader, would “agree to talk”.
Nicolle eventually agreed and the pair later faced off on a TV debate, one of several encounters between protesters and Mahjoubi, who also spent a day shadowing a 48-year-old caregiver and struggling single mother in the southern town of Frejus.
At these and other such meetings, Mahjoubi plays salesman for the “grand national debate” launched by Macron in January to garner feedback on the government's policies.
The judo enthusiast, who worked on the failed 2007 presidential bid of Segolene Royal and victorious 2012 campaign of Francois Hollande, is all too aware of the expectations generated by the debate.
“If we come back with nothing, what will happen? We won't be able to do anything for the last two years of (Macron's) term. You can't lie to the French, it kills your political capital,” he said. “Trust us. We will come up with proposals.”
By AFP's Clare Byrne