MARSEILLE, FRANCE // The daughter of an immigrant Moroccan factory worker has been named France’s top high school student after scoring the highest marks in this summer’s baccalauréat examinations.
Myriam Bourhail, 18, who has dual French-Moroccan nationality, has been feted at the French parliament and featured prominently in media coverage in France and the Maghreb.
One of six children, Myriam attributes her success to hard work, dedicated teachers and the relentless encouragement of her parents, Mohamed and Nadia.
She completed faultless papers in English, Spanish, physics, mathematics and science and ended up, despite slightly lower ratings for sport, history, geography and philosophy, with an average of 21.03 out of 20.
The apparently illogical score, with the average higher than the maximum result, is the result of a complex marking system awarding extra points for optional subjects, in her case Greek and European studies.
A total of 686,900 students, most in France but including some in 85 other countries, sat the 2014 baccalauréat.
“I am so proud of my marks,” Myriam said from her home the Picardy town of Villers-Cotterêts, 80 kilometres north-east of Paris. “I worked hard for this and am lucky enough to find all subjects interesting to me.
“But I have also had great encouragement from my parents and the wonderful help of my teachers. My father has always stressed the importance of culture, history and learning.
“I wouldn’t say I really worked harder than the other students. Perhaps I was a little more passionate about what I was learning, I have a real curiosity.”
She said her father, who also has baccalauréat diplomas in mathematics and natural science, had always pushed her and her siblings “to give the best of ourselves and also to direct us towards culture”.
Myriam stresses the importance of both her French and Arab identities, though her favourite television programme is Doctor Who, a quintessentially English science-fiction series.
“I really like American movies, too.”
She feels particular pride that her academic achievement offers such a positive contrast to negative media coverage of Islam and Muslims.
In September, she will join an elder brother in the north-eastern French city of Reims to begin medicine studies at university. Her ambition is to become a surgeon, though she also hopes – “much later” – to become active in politics.
She described herself as being “towards the left” in politics but felt unable to name any compelling role model in France or internationally.
Her father, who arrived in France at the age of 16, says he sees her as a future mayor of their town, which would be a significant change from the present political landscape of Villers-Cotterêts.
The current mayor, Franck Briffaut, is a member of the far-right, anti-immigration Front National. His views are sufficiently dogmatic to have brought criticism even from the party’s ruling Le Pen dynasty when he boycotted a commemoration of the abolition of slavery this year. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a niece of party leader, Marine Le Pen, described the gesture as “stupid”.
Asked why there was not a single word about Myriam’s remarkable achievement on the town council’s website, a press officer said: “I cannot say why, but it is on our Facebook page.”
Myriam’s visit to parliament was in the company of her local MP, Jacques Krabal, who represents the left-wing Parti Radical de Gauche.
“Myriam is to be congratulated on her wonderful achievement. She is a superb example, a credit to her school and a model of integration in French society,” Mr Krabal said.
Since her results became known, Myriam has appeared on national news broadcasts and talk shows. A Facebook page for “the fans of Myriam Bourhail”, created on July 7, has attracted more than 3,900 “likes” and a stream of congratulatory messages in French and Arabic.
One young contributor, Hicham Saidi, said Myriam had brought honour to all French people with origins in the Maghreb. Nevertheless he objected to media references to her “Arab-Muslim” background, saying: “Talent is talent.”