Tech businesswoman Elisabeth Moreno surprised France this week by becoming the new women’s rights minister. Moreno, a political novice, is now also in charge of diversity and equal opportunities. The only black member of President Emmanuel Macron’s new cabinet wants inclusion to be more than a slogan.
No one could have predicted that Moreno would one day be in government, nor did she.
“I don’t come from this world,” she told reporters Tuesday as she took over from Marlène Schiappa.
Born in Cape Verde to a modest family, Moreno moved to France at the age of six, and said she “was proud and heartened” to be serving the French Republic.
She took to Twitter to thank Prime Minister Jean Castex and President Emmanuel Macron for their “trust,” vowing to defend gender equality, diversity and equal opportunities for all.
The 49-year-old was still living in South Africa when she was offered her new job on Saturday and took just 10 minutes to decide.
The value of human beings
Her thoughts went immediately to her parents, both immigrants in France. Her father worked as a factory worker and her mother a cleaner. “Neither of them could read or write,” she said but they taught her “the value of respect for human beings”.
That education gave Moreno the skills to progress in top firms such as Dell, Chinese group Lenovo and more recently Hewlett-Packard as CEO for Africa in Johannesburg.
It is surprising for a woman who in 2019 confided that she “ticked all the boxes of impossibility” after growing up on a council estate property in Paris’ suburbs.
Moreno said she found refuge in education, going on to secure a master’s in law and an executive MBA. Her capacity to overcome resistance is one of the hallmarks she is hoping to bring to her new role as Minister for Gender Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunities in place of Schiappa.
Even critics of Macron’s government such as the far-right National Rally are impressed.
Jean Messiha, an MP with Marine Le Pen’s party, said although he did not share Moreno’s views, she was a “vivid example of the opportunities that France can offer to a woman of colour…and proof that the Republic is not racist”.
Symbol of diversity
Moreno, often cited as a “symbol of diversity“, is involved in several organisations working to promote inclusiveness and equal opportunities at the work place and now wants to do so at the national level.
Diversity and equal opportunities are not just “theoretical words or marketing slogans”, she said Tuesday amid renewed debate about racism in France sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US.
Floyd’s death has triggered nationwide anti-racism protests in a country that has long clung to universal ideals but which some critics say leaves it blind to racism.
- Black Lives Matter supporters march in France against police brutality
- Black model art show challenges France’s colour blindness
Former government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye caused controversy recently by suggesting a long-standing ban on ethnic statistics should be overturned. She said she had decided to leave the government for “personal reasons”.
Moreno, the only black minister in Macron’s new government, will have to navigate questions about diversity with more tact.
Advocates for women’s rights are also watching her closely. Moreno has already come under fire for past comments she made about sexism in the work place.
In a 2018 interview, the businesswoman said she wanted to avoid a battle of the sexes and “a climate of distrust” where men feel uncomfortable.
Feminists have latched on to her comments as proof that the new government is sliding backwards on women’s rights and the fight against sexual harassment.
But Moreno, a mother of two, says that’s not true.
“Equality between men and women is the most beautiful fight of our century,” she said. However she admitted there was still a long way to go before achieving gender equality.
“Violence and discrimination have not disappeared,” commented Moreno, who says she has also been a victim of conscious and unconscious discrimination. “There is still a lot of work to be done for women, young girls and future generations.”