She Speaks for France’s President. And ‘Explosions of Color’

PARIS — There’s no hiding when you’re the spokeswoman for the Élysée Palace. Especially if you are the first black spokeswoman for the Élysée Palace. Especially if you are Sibeth Ndiaye, the Senegalese-born public face and voice of President Emmanuel Macron of France, and you have no qualms about making a statement. It doesn’t always have to be in words.

In a country where clothes are deeply embedded in the national identity, economy and history, where Brigitte Macron, its first lady, is applauded for wearing slim Louis Vuitton above-the-knee sheaths with matching stilettos, Ms. Ndiaye’s playful, relaxed style of dressing has become a lightning rod for discussions around race, ethnicity and body shape.

“I dress in little-known French brands that match the body of women rather than constraining them to dress in a certain way,” she said during a recent interview at one of her favorite Paris boutiques, Make My Lemonade, on the Canal Saint-Martin. “I want to stop women from feeling ashamed about their bodies. The way I dress is almost a political statement.”

She avoids the tailored, black-white-beige uniform of classic Parisiennes in favor of bright colors, even with her eyeglasses and her multihued strappy patent-leather shoes. She carries a silver metallic Nat & Nin handbag and wears her hair either braided or in a full Afro.

“Circus clothes,” Nadine Morano, a member of the European Parliament and founder of the conservative Rassemblement pour le peuple de France party, tweeted in July about Ms. Ndiaye’s style of dress.

“Dressed like a Teletubbies,” Jordan Bardella, vice president of the far-right Rassemblement National, said of Ms. Ndiaye during an interview in July on France 2 television’s “Les 4” program.

The criticism didn’t faze her. “I couldn’t care less,” Ms. Ndiaye said. “The way I dress is a reflection of what I think. I love explosions of color. I hate neutral. I don’t want to look like a crow.”

Indeed, her clothes make Ms. Ndiaye stand out in a sea of white male bureaucrats dressed in sober dark suits. Unlike many of them, she did not attend elite French universities; she uses undiplomatic slang in conversations with reporters. Her clothes have come to symbolize those differences.

Ms. Morano’s circus comment came after Ms. Ndiaye said kebabs were popular in French cuisine. “I’m outraged,” Ms. Morano wrote in the July tweet, adding that Ms. Ndiaye became a French citizen only three years ago, “clearly with big gaps over French culture, unworthy of her government post.”

The reaction of Mr. Macron’s La République en Marche party was swift. Marlène Schiappa, the gender equality minister, who has praised Ms. Ndiaye as a stellar role model for young women, called it “hallucinatory that we discuss dress or hairstyle, rather than politics.”

Gilles LeGendre, the party’s parliamentary leader, called Ms. Morano’s remarks “openly racist,” and called on her to withdraw them and apologize or be prosecuted.

Ms. Ndiaye agreed. “It was racist,” she said. “The implication was that black women wear very colorful African wax prints. And her allusion to my French naturalization meant that I wasn’t a ‘true, good’ French person, as if to be a ‘true, good’ French person you have to renounce your origins. My cultural identity and relationship to the French nation has never been in doubt.”

Ms. Morano attacked Ms. Ndiaye’s style again on Sept. 15, saying on French radio, “She is shameful in Senegal, she is shameful to France.”

Ms. Ndiaye is not the first woman in French political life to come under attack for what she wears.

In 1972, a guard prevented Michèle Alliot-Marie, who later became defense and foreign minister, from entering the National Assembly chamber because she was wearing pants. (Women were not allowed to wear pants to work in white-collar government jobs until the late 1960s and not in the Assembly until some years later, although the restrictions were vague and applied erratically.)

Forty years later, in 2012, male Assembly members wolf-whistled and oohed when Cécile Duflot, the housing minister, arrived at the lecturn wearing a blue and white floral V-neck wrap dress.

In 2015, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the education minister, was accused by a right-wing columnist of using her sexual charms to avoid answering questions in the Assembly. (She had worn a black dress with a neckline that showed a bit of her lacy bra.)

And sometimes women in France’s government have been told what to wear. In his 2009 autobiography “Autobiographie non autorisée,” Jacques Séguéla, the advertising executive, disclosed details of the official 2007 visit to Washington by his close friend, Nicolas Sarkozy. He said Mr. Sarkozy told Rama Yade, a junior foreign affairs minister, that she was “too beautiful for one of those ‘frou-frou’ dresses;” instructed Rachida Dati, the justice minister, to “abandon her habit of Dior-ized elegance;” and advised Christine Lagarde, the finance minister, to “leave her jewels in the safe.”

Ms. Ndiaye came late to her position as a change agent of political fashion. She was born in an affluent neighborhood in Dakar to a Catholic German-Togolese mother who was a senior judge and then president of the constitutional council in Senegal, and a Muslim Senegalese father who was second in command of the Senegalese Democratic Party of Abdoulaye Wade, later the country’s president. As a child, she learned from her mother how to sew, knit and crochet.

At 15, she moved to Paris on her own to finish high school, became a student activist and joined the Socialist Party, and eventually earned a master’s degree in health economics at the University of Paris. She married, had three children and became a naturalized French citizen in June 2016.

She first met Mr. Macron when he was deputy secretary general at the Élysée and she was working in the finance ministry as an adviser to Arnaud Montebourg, an outspoken left-leaning economic minister in the government of President François Hollande. Much to the surprise of her leftist friends and colleagues, when Mr. Macron decided in 2014 to run for president, she joined his campaign team.

Sibeth Ndiaye Stands Out

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Along the way, she discovered that tailored dress-for-success jackets with blouses and either pencil skirts or narrow trousers were not for her. “I tried to follow the dress codes but it was a failure,” she said. “I’m chubby. I looked like a sack of potatoes.”

A moment of discovery came when she found an elegant handmade baby’s blanket for a friend, and then online sewing sites and designs that flattered her figure. The sewing skills she had learned as a child came back to her.

“I realized it wasn’t that complicated to sew, so I said to myself, ‘Why not make my own clothes?’” she said. “I discovered a universe where I could find my own fabrics and make clothes that suited me,” she said. “It coincided with the moment I became pregnant. Pregnancy changed my relationship with my body. I wanted to dress for myself and not conform.”

Ms. Ndiaye began making dresses for herself and, later, clothes for her children. She also began promoting original Made in France designs and products, a campaign championed for years by French officials and politicians.

These days, she favors high-waisted dresses with full skirts (“flattering for my stomach and more comfortable”) which she sometimes tops with a black leather biker’s jacket. She wears Repetto ballet slippers or even brightly colored athletic shoes if she has a long day of walking. Unlike Mr. Macron, who likes to play tennis, jog and box; and her husband, Patrice Roques, who is a triathlete, Ms. Ndiaye eschews exercise. “Every Monday I decide to start working out, and every Tuesday I give up on it,” she said.

Ms. Ndiaye discovered Make My Lemonade, a do-it-yourself store and gallery space created in 2018 by the French blogger Lisa Gachet, when it was still only an online business. It sells brightly colored women’s clothing, shoes and accessories, fabrics and women’s patterns in a range of sizes, and recently opened a pop-up at the luxury Left Bank department store Le Bon Marché. All its goods are designed in France and made either in France or elsewhere in the European Union. “It pays tribute,” Ms. Ndiaye said, “to the Made in France movement, to inventiveness, to creativity à la française.”

For her, she said, “Clothes are fundamentally a partage” — or, for sharing. “In France, clothes are a way to share French culture with the world. And we give something of ourselves with the way we dress.”

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