Macron’s ‘computer geek’ minister wants to hack into parliament
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A 30-something, former Internet start-up boss of Moroccan descent, Mounir Mahjoubi wants to be more than President Emmanuel Macron’s junior minister of the digital economy, he also wants to be the champion of political change in France’s parliament.
Macron rose to power in May on the promise of moving past the traditional left-right political divide, to reinvigorate government with an entrepreneurial spirit and propel France into the 21st century. As he settles into the humdrum of the presidency – and as attention turns to this month’s legislative elections – Mahjoubi has in many ways picked up the baton.
Mahjoubi, 33, is in charge of overseeing technological innovation and the digital economy in Macron’s brand-new government. In addition, he is now campaigning for a seat in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Mahjoubi’s main rival in his northern Paris district is none other than Socialist Party chief Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, and the contrast between the two men is stark.
A student activist in his youth, Cambadélis is white and a career politician. The balding 65-year-old is running for a fifth straight term as a lawmaker. Mahjoubi, the son of Moroccan immigrants, began work at 16 as an Internet support technician and helped launch his first start-up at 26. Sporting smart glasses and an often wild crop of dark hair, he has never run for public office.
The battle between Cambadélis and Mahjoubi is turning into one of the key duels in France’s two-stage legislative election on June 11 and 18 – one that will measure French voters’ desire to remain loyal to experienced politicians, or bet on a new generation of untested upstarts.
Mahjoubi shies away from the suggestions that he symbolises a political rebirth in France, and rejects the idea that he is at war with Cambadélis. He nevertheless embraces the idea that he is part of a larger movement to unseat the old guard.
“I am not a campaigning against the Socialist Party or against Jean-Christophe Cambadélis. I am campaigning for [Macron’s] République en Marche! in the 19th district of Paris, in order to win majority in parliament,” he told FRANCE 24 in a recent interview. “But it’s true people don’t want to vote for the Socialists anymore. I feel the yearning for something new, fresh faces and ideas.”
And as he knocks on doors and shakes voters’ hands on the street, the rookie minister doesn’t hesitate to highlight his unconventional path into politics.
Moving on up
Mahjoubi likes to recall his childhood years growing up in Paris’s 12th district, his family’s petitions for low-rent social housing, and the long queues at the police prefecture for residency cards. His father worked as a building painter and his mother as a cleaning lady. “You can’t forget where you come from,” he tells a group of women outside a small shop specialising in food items from North Africa and the Caribbean.
He leaves after around 15 minutes, confident he has secured a few more votes.
He knows he embodies the social mobility the women at the store dream of for their own children. He’s also aware that he is a surrogate for Macron, who during the presidential campaign often decried the virtual “house arrest” imposed on countless youths, who grow up in France’s economically disenfranchised neighbourhoods and see no hope of escape.
Despite the odds, Mahjoubi found an exit. After excelling in secondary school and college, he earned a Master’s degree in business law from Sorbonne University, and a second Master’s in finance from the prestigious Sciences-Po University, both in Paris. Today he credits France’s public education system for his success.
“It was the only thing that mattered for my parents. You had to have good grades, you had to work hard. But that wasn't difficult, because I loved being at school,” he admits. “When I was little, it was the only thing I cared about. I liked getting there early and staying late. And a love of school can change your whole life.”
First steps in business, and politics
After completing his studies, the self-declared “computer geek” entered the IT start-up world. His main entrepreneurial achievement to date remains La ruche qui dit oui! (The beehive that says yes!), an app that promotes farm-to-fork businesses, allowing consumers to buy directly from French farmers.
He also began taking his first steps in politics. In 2002, at the age of 18, he became a member of the Socialist Party, and in 2006 lent his talents to the creation of the Segosphere – then Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal’s online campaign. With Mahjoubi’s help, Royal won the Socialist Party’s primary, but would eventually lose the general election to conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.
In 2011, he was called up again by the Socialist leadership to help establish François Hollande’s Internet presence in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections. This race would end in triumph, and in January 2016 Mahjoubi was rewarded with a job at the national French Digital Council, a body that advises the French president on all matters related to new technologies.
He would nevertheless step down 11 months later to join team Macron, becoming the presidential candidate’s top “digital strategy” advisor. He would garner national media attention in April as Russian hackers allegedly sought to infiltrate Macron’s campaign. Mahjoubi adeptly helped protect the team’s confidential information behind the scenes, while offering diplomatic responses to accusations of Moscow’s meddling in front of the cameras.
Joining the party-less candidate proved to be a winning gamble. A few days after Macron stunned France and the world by becoming the country’s youngest-ever president, Mahjoubi became the youngest member of his government cabinet.
Asked about the fact that he has never held the same job for very long, Mahjoubi admits he prefers “creating” over “implementation”. He says it’s a professional trait that suits his new role. “My job as a junior minister is to have a long-term vision of things and launch initiatives. I’m not here to manage, there are administrators for that. But every day there is something new to decide, propel, launch, organise and influence,” he said.
There is a catch. If he fails to win his parliamentary vote in northern Paris, Mahjoubi will have to forfeit his cabinet appointment, a policy decided by Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. So, for now his geek powers are locked on his own parliamentary campaign.
Taking a cue from his boss Macron – who spent the summer of 2016 collecting ideas and initiatives from ordinary citizens across France before kicking off his presidential bid – Mahjoubi’s campaign team has spent hours surveying residents of the French capital’s 19th district. It is an economically diverse constituency, which includes people clambering for social housing – like his parents once did – but also high earners more concerned with community gardening.
His success will depend on addressing very different – and sometimes competing – needs, as well as on a heavy dose of charm. Here too, he can learn from the master himself: Macron, whose conquests range from his school drama teacher-turned-wife, to millions of voters who felt betrayed by France’s traditional left- and right-wing parties.
Mahjoubi knows it’s part of the job, and is ready to go along. “I like to charm people, but with the aim of winning them to my cause,” he muses. “The main goal in my life is to win people over, to convince them we can accomplish things that are beneficial to everyone. My biggest disappointments are when I fail to convince others.”
Macron’s top computer geek could soon be coding France’s new politics, or be left wondering why the system crashed.