Rima Abdul Malak seeks unifying role as new French Minister of Culture

Lebanese-born politician moved to Lyon aged 10 and made a career in arts and humanitarian work

France's new Minister of Culture Rima Abdul Malak (right) replaces Roselyne Bachelot (left), who had been in the job for 22 months.   AFP
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The appointment of French-Lebanese Rima Abdul Malak as Minister of Culture was a surprise announcement to many in France but not to those close to the country's president.

Not much of a household name before joining the cabinet, Ms Abdul Malak nevertheless had an eminent career in the arts before entering politics. Ms Abdul Malak, whose parents fled Beirut for France with their three children during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90, worked with a charity two decades ago that put on comedy shows in camps in conflict zones.

She then took roles in the French cultural bureaucracy with posts in the Paris mayoralty before she was picked as advisor on culture and communications to President Emmanuel Macron since 2019.

She has spent the last two years working to launch and promote the “Culture Pass,” which helps to foster young people's participation in the arts. She is also said to have cultivated a close relationship with the French leader, with the French daily newspaper Le Monde describing her as an "influential" adviser to Macron. The two are known to swap texts about new poetry.

Many professionals in the French creative sector have welcomed Ms Abdul Malak’s appointment, including the former Minister of Culture, Jack Lang. He described her as "a remarkable personality who has an intimate and detailed knowledge of cultural life. Her presence is a sign, and a test."

Ms Abdul Malak thanked Mr Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Twitter for "their trust" in appointing her in charge of the "ministry that gives meaning and taste to life". She added that cultural industries could "count on my commitment!"

Ms Abdul Malak's job is set to be a tough one. The “revolving door” of the position, which in the past 30 years has been held by no fewer than 15 people, is compounded by a steep climb to recover an industry decimated by the pandemic.

However, distinct yet overlapping career paths in the humanitarian and culture sectors may have given her the tools needed to rise to the challenge.

From Lebanon to Lyon

Ms Abdul Malak was born and raised in a small village called Shikan in the mountains of Lebanon until the age of 10. In 1989, amid an intense wave of violence during the 15-year civil war, her parents left war-torn Lebanon for France. The family settled in the famously gastronomical city of Lyon, where Ms Abdul Malak says she discovered her love for theatre and thrived academically.

In her acceptance speech as Minister of Culture, Ms Abdul Malak told how her parents, who left Lebanon with their three children and five suitcases, chose to settle in France. She said they believed in the country’s national motto of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and worked hard to give back and contribute to the country that welcomed them.

French Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak was an "influential" advisor to President Emmanuel Macron even before her recent appointment to the cabinet. EPA

After completing her French Baccalaureate in Lyon, Ms Abdul Malak went on to study at the city's Institute of Political Studies, before having a term at the University of California in Los Angeles. After graduating, Ms Abdul Malak completed a two-year diploma in Contemporary Arab World at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Lyon, before pursing a post-graduate degree in Development and International Co-operation from the University of Pantheon-Sorbonne in Paris.

Early career

Ms Abdul-Malak began her career in humanitarianism working with the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development in 2000. She then became the programme director of Clowns Without Borders, an organisation that brings artists together to put on shows for children in war zones, from 2001 to 2006.

In 2007, Ms Abdul-Malak became head the contemporary music department of the Institut Francais, before she switched to politics, joining Paris City Hall as an adviser for the performing arts the following year.

She went on to become the chief of staff to Christophe Girard, the Deputy Mayor of Paris in charge of culture, before joining the staff of Bertrand Delanoe, then Mayor of Paris in 2012.

At the end of the mayor's second term, Ms Abdul Malak left Europe for America where, in 2017, she was appointed the French cultural attache in New York. She called this an intersection of ‘culture and internationalism’, her two career paths.

At the end of her post, she returned to France, taking over from Claudia Ferrazzi as the cultural and communication advisor at the Elysee Palace. According to a statement from the Ministry of Culture, she spent the past two and a half years there “working on a daily basis, in permanent contact with Matignon [the prime minister’s residence] and the Ministry of Culture, to roll out measures to help the sector deal with the pandemic.”

French media has reported the former president of the professional committee of art galleries, Georges-Philippe Vallois, as describing Ms Abdul Malak as someone who is “interested in art and is a good listener”. The well-known French gallery owner said he had worked “without difficulty” with Ms Abdul Malak during her time in New York and said she was someone “for whom culture is a vocation and not a function.”

Other professionals in the arts have praised Ms Abdul Malak’s “warm”, “loyal”, “faithful” personality. The deputy director of the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers, Valerie-Anne Expert, described the new Minister of Culture as someone who “listens to artists with great artistic sensitivity”. The gallerist Nathalie Obadia said Ms Abdul Malak’s “hardworking, curious and determined” nature and experience in New York made her adept at wielding “soft power”.

What’s next for France’s new Culture Minister?

Ms Abdul Malak replaces Roselyne Bachelot, who had been in the job for 22 months. Her appointment comes at a time of financial crisis following Covid-19 that badly hit museums and other cultural venues, making Ms Abdul Malak’s job a challenging one from the outset.

But her previous advisory role, in which she worked closely with the Ministry of Culture to introduce measures to help the sector after the pandemic, should stand her in good stead for the tasks ahead. She also supported the implementation of France's cultural policies on heritage protection, artistic education and regulation reforms within the media sector.

Of the ministry’s priorities, overseeing the French government’s policy on restitution is a pressing one. In January, France’s Senate approved a bill to set up a national expert commission that would be consulted on any future non-European restitution cases. This restarted France’s earlier moves at returning artefacts taken during its colonial imperialism.

Plans to abolish France's TV licence system are also set to come in as early as this year. While changes in funding will be decided primarily by the Finance Ministry, Ms Abdul Malak will have to address the concerns of public broadcasters.

Updated: May 25, 2022, 7:54 AM