French minister Marlène Schiappa owes some of her recent fame to her frisky yet confusing decision to pose for the April issue of French Playboy—dressed, but suggestively so.
“How cheeky and modern!” one may have thought of this 40-year-old former blogger and feminist activist, who continues to write erotic fiction while holding high-profile posts under Macron, most recently as secretary of state in charge of economic justice and associative life. (Here she’s in illustrious company: current Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, just came out with the novel Fugue Américain, in parts highly NSFW.)
Another thought may have occurred: “How hypocritical and strange for a militant feminist to occupy 12 pages of a historically misogynist magazine.”
But Schiappa is a thoroughly modern media creation, one for whom no press is bad press. She is a regular presence on soundstages and the radio, where her combative style in defense of women’s rights and Macron’s policies is as loud as her fire-engine-red manicure. It’s earned her the admiration of even homophobic trolls such as the notorious TV presenter Cyril Hanouna. Hers is the first issue of Playboy to sell out in decades.
Macron made a point of hiring well-known people outside of politics to head key ministries. It was to show the French people that there could be paths other than the well-worn one trod by dusty technocrats from the same three elite schools. It gave his dynamic, young administration extra pizzazz, and Schiappa scored a major personal victory in 2018 when a bill she wrote cracking down on sexual assault of minors and street harassment became law.
Even though Schiappa was publicly upbraided by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne for platforming her assets during an ongoing crisis over pension reform, she drank up the controversy, triumphantly defending her decision across media and on Twitter to go where the eyeballs are if she wants to get her political points across. And, anyway, it’s her right, as a woman, to express herself as erotically as she pleases, n’est-ce pas?
No press was bad press, that is, until around two weeks ago, when the once ubiquitous Schiappa went silent—albeit temporarily. She refused to respond to journalists and, at the last minute, canceled an appearance on CNN to talk about Playboy.
No, she hadn’t finally succumbed to that blowback. Her reticence was due to her latest scandal, over influence-peddling and cronyism in the management of the Fonds Marianne. Schiappa set up the fund in 2021, as then minister delegate of citizenship, in the wake of the assassination of Samuel Paty, a popular high-school teacher who was beheaded with a meat cleaver by a Franco-Chechen extremist for having shared cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad in class.
The country was horrified, and the government response was swift: Paty was posthumously awarded the Légion d’Honneur, the mosque in the suburb of Pantin said to be harboring his killer’s network was closed for six months, two Muslim NGOs were dissolved as “enemies of the state,” and Schiappa put together $2.7 million to fight against Islamist extremism on social media.
The goal was to goose digital-content providers to promote “French values,” but the money was not distributed with spotless integrity. That could also be called a French value of a sort. (It could also be called an American one, given our hallowed traditions of $10,000 toilet-seat covers and the ill-gotten luxury of half our Supreme Court.)
Since François Hollande’s time in office, there have been valiant and effective efforts to clean things up. But you can still set your watch by revelations of politicians with secret bank accounts, subsidized housing going to friends, fake jobs given to nonworking spouses, and on and on.
Schiappa’s first crime was overseeing the disbursement of $355,000 to a just formed organization headed by another controversial figure, the Algerian-French journalist Mohamed Sifaoui, to produce anti-jihad YouTube videos. Sifaoui and his partner took almost all the money themselves, six figures each, and the videos cracked maybe 80 views.
And then another organization, Réconstruire le Commun, whose board included an activist who graffitied the shuttered mosque in Pantin, used its $330,000 to produce panel-discussion videos of cringey hipsters talking politics. The problem was that their content rolled out during Macron’s second run for president, and a lot of the talk centered on the lameness of his opponents.
It’s unclear what any of that has to do with reducing Islamist radicalization, but Anne Hidalgo and Sandrine Rousseau, both presidential candidates in 2022, claim the videos damaged their chances and are suing for illegal use of public funds and violating campaign-finance laws.
Who vetted these guys? Not Schiappa, she says. When she finally came forward last week to defend herself, in the unbowed, highly huffy style that our shame-free era demands, she claimed she didn’t have anything to do with selecting the grant recipients.
But Mediapart, who has been on this ongoing scandal like red on Camargue rice, just uncovered that Sifaoui was approached by her office first, and received his grant before the deadline for applications was even closed. In a classic “no collusion” deflection by escalation, she said that anyone who accused her of personally profiting would hear from her lawyer. Except nobody has accused her of touching any back-end payments herself, even as separate scandals unfurl over her preferential hiring practices elsewhere during her time as minister.
A senatorial audit of the Fonds’ accounting confirms all the reporting so far, and now Sonia Backès, the secretary of state who inherited the post Schiappa held when she set up the fund, is investigating. A separate parliamentary inquiry started this week, to find out exactly who hired Sifaoui and the misfits at Réconstruire le Commun, and what Schiappa herself had to do with it. And on Wednesday, the national fiscal prosecutor announced its investigation, putting the Fonds into potentially criminal territory for the first time.
The whole thing stinks to high heaven, and could spell the end of Schiappa’s time at the beating heart of Macronie, no matter how beloved she is by Brigitte.
Whatever the result of the current mess, when the time comes for her to be questioned, of one thing we can be sure: her blowout will be amazing.
Alexandra Marshall is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. A contributor to W, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and Travel + Leisure, she recently relocated from Paris to Le Perche