Mounir Mahjoub i, the ‘geek’ who saved Macron’s campaign: ‘We knew we were going to be attacked’

The youngest member of Frances new government is a self-taught digital guru from a poor immigrant household. He talks about how his Arab name harmed his CV, working in a call centre and how he foiled the cyber attack that threatened En Marches election hopes

At a crowded marketplace in the shadow of towerblocks in north-eastern Paris, shoppers gather to take selfies with a smiling, slightly shy, young man in a business suit. Mounir! A photo with my grandmother! screams one young lady, pushing forward an old lady in north African dress for a hug. My daughter needs work experience, what do you indicate? asked a parent from the 10 th floor of a high-rise, proud of the first child in the family to go to university.

Mounir Mahjoubi, 33, is the youngest are part of Frances new government and part of Emmanuel Macrons inner circle. He is the computer brains and digital campaigner whose online strategy helped the independent centrist Macron secure a decisive presidential election wins in May, and who worked to stem a vast hacking assault that reached the final days of the campaign. He is now being held up as one of the faces of the Macron landslide a newcomer to parliamentary politics well-placed to win a seat in the final round of National Assembly elections on Sunday, when the presidents new centrist motion, La Rpublique En Marche, is on course to win one of the biggest majorities in the modern French state.

Mahjoubi was born to Moroccan parents in the east of Paris. Prepare to see new faces in parliament, he has regularly said on the campaign trail. France, which has a large population with Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian roots, currently has fewer than a handful of MPs from that background in parliament. He is stand in Pariss northern 19 th arrondissement, a mix of ethnically diverse working-class neighborhoods and rapid gentrification, where he has lived for two years. He topped the first-round vote last weekend, knocking out the Socialist party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadlis who had held the seat for 20 years, and now faces a run-off against the hard-left movement, France Unbowed.

In voters minds, Mahjoubi is still best-known for digital damage-limitation.

Hours before the presidential election, he battled what Macrons campaign called a massive and coordinated hacking assault that cybersecurity research firms indicated might be the work of a Russian-affiliated group. Tens of thousands of internal emails and other documents were released online after months of attempts to hack into email accounts and systems. Mahjoubi claimed to have restriction the impact by setting traps of false email accounts for the hackers, saying only mundane messages such as jokes or suppliers invoices had been stolen.

Days afterward, he was appointed Frances junior minister for digital affairs, in charge of the new governments internet strategy, from net safety to digital startups.

Every recent French government has had a minister for digital affairs. But none of them was a self-taught geek from a poor immigrant family who as a child trekked across Paris to use free computers in museum foyers, and says the most formative years of their own lives were those spent as a teenage bellow centre technician helping fix people problems with their internet connects. He is the first minister for digital affairs who, when he found his Arab-sounding name put employers off his CV, instead became a startup entrepreneur, rising to head the countrys digital advisory body and championing inclusive internet access for all, spurred on by his mothers difficulty in using the internet and inability to volume an appointed online.

Mahjoubi on the stump in Paris. Photograph: Laurent Chamussy/ Sipa/ Rex/ Shutterstock

In the back of his ministry automobile on the way to a weekend session in his government department before the first round of national parliaments election, Mahjoubi looks out of the tinted windows and reflects on the word geek. He has always described himself as a geek and on the French political scene it has been taken at face-value to entail the computer obsessive that he is. But he also assures geekdom as a kind of foreigner status. Its about your relationship to the world, he muses. The term geek entails nerd. People look at you differently; you look at the world differently. Digital contact and going online that was amazing, it changed my social life.

Mahjoubis mothers arrived from Morocco in the 1970 s, when his mother was 17. It was a very working-class family, they arrived with no qualifications. At first they ran as custodians. Then my mother became a chambermaid in a hotel, my father painted buildings.

As a child, he was into maths and geometry, the middle child with one sister 10 years older and the other 10 years younger. I heard about this incredible new thing “ve called the” internet, he says, adding how, aged 12, he saw an advert for the Paris science museum where you could try the internet for free. There were 15 computers and you queued to have an hour free if you bought an entry ticket. I bought an annual pass to the museum and every Saturday and Sunday Id travel from one side of Paris to the other to get on the internet and ensure what it was about. Id go on Yahoo, chat with people on the other side of the world. I didnt speak great English then so it wasnt brilliant chat …

At 13, he won a young innovators rivalry in the kids science magazine, Sciences et Vie, for his design of a new geometry instrument in the shape of a camembert cheese. He employed the prize money to buy the cheapest computer he could find it was flat-packed and he assembled it at home. He expended his spare time coding.

While still at school, aged 16 in 2000, he applied for a part-time undertaking as a call centre technician for Club Internet, the first major French internet service provider. He was so young he required his mothers signature on his contract, but he stayed there for eight years, paying his style through a law degree and then a business qualification at the prestigious Science Po university in Paris. Later he launched a series of startups based all over the collaborative economy, including La Ruche qui dit Oui( the FoodAssembly in the UK) an online food co-op system that allowed communities to buy direct from local producers.

But throughout our dialogue, he returns to his Club Internet bellow centre days as the period that shaped him the most. I must have answered 9,000 bellows in eight years, he says. Theyd say: Its not working. I cant connect, I dont understand whats happening.

What did he learn there? I learned life. Because with 9,000 calls, thats 9,000 lives youre stepping into it induces you humble. You listen, you help. If you didnt take pleasure in it, youd die following completion of it, so I took pleasure in it. When you reconnect people emails and they ensure them reappear, theyre really happy.

Minister for digital affairs … Mahjoubi( back left) with Macron( front left) and other members of the new government. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/ AFP/ Getty Images

Still a adolescent, he took on a key trade union organizations position at the call centre when there was a sudden and inhuman switch to automation without consulting personnel. Normally you picked up the phone, said hello and could spend an hour fixing a customers problem. Abruptly, from one day to the next, the phone picks up by itself, hangs up by itself, and theres an alert that says: Watch out, this call is going on too long, a superviser that listens in, a chart that says whos the top-performing technician. Everyone started getting ill, becoming absent. That was because it had been done without consultation. Automation Ive lived it so Im not afraid of it, and I know it can be handled well but there have to be ground-rules at the start.

Being a union rep which really shaped my character, he says. I had the leading edge of someone who had negotiated with the bosses, purchasers, magistrates. You gain a kind of strength.

His studies went well; he won awardings a public speaking award, a one-year research-stint at Columbia university in New York, where he ran the French movie club. He went to Cambridge for a month as part of a scholarship bringing together international students of all faiths and backgrounds. But he still came up against the age-old problem in France of having an Arab-sounding name on his CV. Even after his business qualification, his task applications were mostly met with silence. He determined it easier to startup his own companies.

Its not just about Arab-sounding names. Those names often come with a working-class background, and that can entail a CV that is missing the right internships because you dont know the system well, he says. That was my lawsuit. I wanted to work for a management consultancy. The recruiter said, Mounir, you dont have strong internships, strong work experience.

He had become a Socialist party member as a student and worked for the presidential candidate Sgolne Royals online campaign, known as the Sgosphere, and again for Franois Hollandes winning campaign in 2012. It was last year, when his digital business success ensure him appointed head of Frances national digital council an independent commission of digital experts who advise government that he first satisfied Macron, then economy pastor. He felt the Socialist party wasnt sharp enough on helping entrepreneurs. When the pro-business Macron announced he would run for chairman, Mahjoubi jumped ship to become his digital consultant, saying Macron was the only person able to create the conditions for really changing France.

Mahjoubi defines Macrons digital electoral campaign by its live-streaming. Macron was the candidate with the most live videos, from campaign rallies to moments such as Macron wading into a crowd of angry workers to debate with them outside the Whirlpool factory in Amiens( closed to the media but broadcast on Facebook live by Macrons team ). A digital campaign doesnt replace a physical campaign, it merely permits more people to live it in real-time, Mahjoubi says. A Macron campaign video could get around 4 million views.

The hacking risk was always there, he says, given the hacking of Hillary Clintons Democrat campaign in the US: We knew we were going to be attacked and targeted. Early on, he says, it was clear that highly sophisticated endeavors were being made to get access to the campaigns email accounts, including hackers pretending to be Mahjoubi himself and emailing staff asking them to download supposed documents detailing how to protect accounts. He focused on reducing the risk if anyone managed to break into the system. His digital squad put in place traps for hackers, cyber-blurring with false email accounts and false documents, mainly to waste their time and slacken them down which also avoided hackers getting near Macrons own account or his top aides.

Who exactly hacked the campaign? We still dont know we can never say, he answers carefully. He maintains his squad restriction the damage. There wasnt much to steal from us , not much info they could get.

For Mahjoubi, the internet worsens what is dangerous and dark, and improves what is decent and good; its a delicate balance. His first intent as digital pastor is access for all, even in rural connection blackspots and among people who feel too old or intimidated to use it, as well as stimulating Frances creaking country administration fully digital and improving business tech.

Macrons new neither right nor left political motion, which needs a majority in the parliamentary elections to be able to to be implemented by his pro-business reforms, has promised to renew and revolutionise the political class.

Does Mahjoubi feel that entails people from ethnic-minority backgrounds like himself? He pauses. What weve changed with Emmanuel Macron is all types of diversity age, social background, career background. Bringing people into government from civil society and the private sector is a revolution. And then me, I stand for diversity on a lot of fronts: age, digital, entrepreneurship and after all that, yes, I have an Arab name, a different type of face. And if that entails a child might look at me and say, One day I could become a minister, then Im very happy about that.

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