Like Diane Abbott, French left-wing politician Danièle Obono feels the sexism and racism of the right-wing establishment, writes Susan Ram
On June 20, 577 parliamentarians (deputés) arrived to take up their seats in France’s National Assembly following the second, conclusive round of legislative elections. Among them was the La France Insoumise (LFI) contingent, seventeen men and women strong, their exuberance captured in a group photo clicked in the Paris sunshine.
At the centre of the frame, just behind a beaming Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a young black woman indulges the photographer with a dazzling smile. She’s Danièle Obono, the new deputée for the 17th circonscription (constituency) of Paris.
Counterfire readers will already be familiar with Danièle Obono through Feyzi Ismail’s interview with her back in April. A librarian and doctoral student of Gabonese origin, Danièle has been active on the French radical Left for many years. During the 2017 presidential polls she was a national speaker for LFI and one of two spokespersons for Mélenchon (the other was Alexis Corbière). Her central position within the movement and her ability to articulate its platform persuasively and with passion mark her out as an exciting new presence -- and as a challenge to the racism, colonialism and sexism entrenched in French politics and wider society.
On June 21, just a day after taking up her seat, Danièle agreed to take part in a radio talk show called ‘les Grande Gueules’ (literally, Loudmouths or Big Mouths). Broadcast every weekday morning by RMC (Radio Monte-Carlo, a private station), the show unites regular hosts Alain Marschall and Olivier Truchot with an ever changing array of ‘ordinary’ folk drawn from civil society: teachers, small business owners and so on. With the two professionals very much in charge, the assembled ‘loudmouths’ subject special invitees to questions geared to stirring things up, catching the headlines – and boosting ratings.
Danièle handled her grilling extremely well, answering questions with good humour, eloquence and the confidence that comes from a longstanding engagement with radical left politics. In all probability it was her cool, unflustered handling of the interrogation that at the end spurred her hosts to spin her a googly. Why, five years ago in 2012, had she signed a petition in defence of singer Daïdou and sociologist Saïd Bouamma, authors of a song and a book titled ‘Nique la France!’ (Fuck France!)? Was such action appropriate for a National Assembly deputé? And was she prepared, right now, to declare ‘Vive la France’ (Long live France) across the airwaves?
Danièle’s response was excellent. Defending the principle of freedom of expression, she argued, was central to the practice of democracy and incumbent upon every elected representative. There was therefore no disconnect between her signing the petition and her present status as a deputé. As such, there was no need for her to parrot the phrase demanded, any more than to break out in a rousing chorus of the Marseillaise.
Cue a media-stoked wave of Establishment outrage. “Incredible! This LFI deputée defends those who sing ‘Fuck France’ while she herself hesitates to say ‘Long Live France!’” spluttered Thierry Mariani of Les Républicains. Fanned by indignant headlines and pompous incantations of national republican values, an incendiary flow of racist, colonialist and sexist insults hit the social media, engulfing Danièle in a firestorm of abuse. It was as if her cool, reasoned responses had pressed a button, releasing toxic clouds of racism and unleashing the full fury of the ‘fachosphere’ (the on-line extreme Right).
Powerful expressions of support for Danièle included Mélenchon’s denunciation of her interrogators as media attack dogs whose machismo bore the taint of “insupportable racism”. A statement issued by LFI pointed out, inter alia, that other (white) signatories to the petition at the centre of Danièle’s pillorying, including Olivier Besancenot (former leader of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA)) and Eva Joly of Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV), had never been targeted in this way. On last Friday’s edition of Les Grandes Gueules, Alexis Corbière angrily made the point that, despite appearing on the programme many times over the years, he had never been asked whether or not he loved France: “You’ve never asked me to say ‘Vive la France’. That’s because my name is Alexis Corbière, not Danièle Obono. That wounds me, and it wounds lots of other people.”
As I followed the story, the parallels with another recent instance of media baiting of a black woman of the Left were compelling. No Counterfire reader will be unaware of the media lynching suffered by Diane Abbott during the UK’s recent election campaign. While the mainstream media feasted on certain interview lapses (subsequently revealed to be related to the onset of Diane’s diabetes), Britain’s own ‘fachosphere’ gleefully aired every revolting element in the extreme right’s cesspool of sexism and racism. No abuse was spared in the task of desecrating and seeking to destroy a strong black woman of the Left.
In a powerfully written salute to Diane, the feisty Jack Monroe, known for her austerity-era cooking, blogging and fighting spirit, paid tribute to the trail-blazing quality of the MP for Hackney North:
“Diane was the first black woman to have a seat in the House of commons. She made history. Her father was a welder, her mother a nurse. How many working-class kids do we have in politics these days? Fuck all, really.”
Imagine 30 years of getting up every day and putting your suit on and going back to work to make life better for your abusers despite them. Imagine being tough enough to withstand people hurling metaphorical rocks at you every day and to still work to improve their lives…Diane Abbott is here for women, children, food bank users, nurses, students, mothers, disabled people, refugees, every single one of us.
Like Diane Abbott, Danièle Obono is a pioneer.
There are reportedly 35 ‘minority’ deputés in France’s new National Assembly, constituting 6.35% of the 551 members not representing France’s overseas territories. While this figure is up from the ten or so in the previous parliament, black French citizens remain significantly underrepresented in parliament, the more so those from the working class (most of the new intake of minority MPs have been borne in on the Macron wave).
A woman who is black, beautiful and a champion for those at the margins of French society, or under threat from Macron’s neo-liberal ‘reforms’, or suffering Islamophobic or other racist discrimination and abuse, or enduring the ongoing humiliations dealt by a deeply sexist society: this is Danièle Obono – a trail-blazer and an inspiration for us all.
The words of ‘Nique La France!’ are available in French and English at http://lyricstranslate.com/en/nique-la-france-fuck-france.html
For Jack Monroe’s tribute to Diane Abbott, see her blog titled ‘We need to talk about Diane Abbott. Now.’ June 7, 2017. Available at https://cookingonabootstrap.com/2017/06/07/we-need-to-talk-about-diane-abbott-now-explicit-content/
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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