Danièle Obono, a leading member of the French Left, speaks about the impact of the recent attacks and the dangers of Islamophobia
How would you assess the mood in France right now? What kinds of political feelings brought people out onto the streets in such large numbers?
It’s still quite difficult to assess the general “mood” without being a bit impressionistic. It also depends on who you are talking to and what about. The shock of the deadly attacks against Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish store is slowly abating but there still is a sense of trauma within individual and collective minds and the ripple effects of which are yet to be fully felt.
For the record, I didn’t join the government-organised “national unity” march on the 11th of December for I opposed its organizers, watchwords and national and international guests list (from the right-wing French opposition party UMP to the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu). The majority of the social and political activists I know did join though, just as most of my work colleagues and friends did. For many of those I know who responded to the call for “Union Sacrée” this demonstration was about paying tribute to all of the victims and maybe also affirming their commitment to certain principles and values (freedom of speech, equality, etc.) which they feel should be guaranteed by the French “republican model”.
But the problem with “national unity” is precisely that it is set to reconcile the opposites: from the far left to the far right, humanists and racists can come together to defend or support the national community. Which is what happened on the 11th: the march was backed by every single left organisation under the sun as well as by the right-wing opposition party UMP with the far-right National Front attempting to gate-crash. There were anti-capitalist activists who joined in order to be part of the national unity mass movement and handed out pro-working class and anti-racist leaflets. And there were the very same right-wing activists who organized the anti same-sex marriage mobilisations two years ago who held posters about defending “our values” against “terrorism”.
Last but not least, there were those who didn’t join the January 11 marches, among whom were a lot of Muslims people who either feared being attacked or disagreed with the “Je suis Charlie” slogans. In some schools, there were instances where some young people, often of (northern) African descent and/or of Muslim faith, refused to take part in the minutes of silence organized throughout the country.
So it’s important to look at those mobilisations from the different points of view: of those who take part in it and those who didn’t.
Is there a danger of a racist backlash? Will the National Front gain from this situation?
The racist backlash has already happened. Attacks against mosques started not even a day after the Charlie Hebdo shooting. 116 anti-Muslim acts have been recorded in France since the attacks of 7 to 9 January, according to the National Observatory against Islamophobia which is part of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). Those figures are based on complaints registered by the Ministry of the Interior, and showed an increase of 110 % compared to January 2014.
The Socialist Party government seems to be, for now, the one benefitting most from the post-11 January situation : president François Hollande, who, only a couple of weeks before, was reaching peaks of unpopularity, has had a + 20 % surge in general approval according to recent opinion polls. And they are using this newfound popularity to push through more security anti-terrorist measures and anti-worker policies. Last Friday, Amnesty International criticized and warned the Government against the 60+ arrests that occurred over the past week on the vague charge of “defending terrorism” (“l’apologie du terrorisme”) because of statements made in the aftermath of the attacks on 7 and 9 January. One example of cases include a man shouting in the street “I am proud to be a Muslim, I do not like Charlie, they were right to do that”.
On the longer term, it is definitely the National Front which should gain most from all that is happening right now. A couple of days after the attacks, both François Hollande’s and National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s were the most viewed political Facebook pages. More importantly, the National Front has built most of its support on an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and pro-security political program. And that worked quite well for them as they won the 2014 European elections on that platform. Furthermore, in recent years they have managed to transition from political outcasts to a nearly normalized legitimate party. To the point that some leaders of the right wing opposition party UMP complained that the National Front wasn’t officially invited to the 11th of January march, stating that it was a “republican” march and the National Front should be considered a legitimate republican party. When Marine Le Pen joined the rally organised on the 11th of January in the southern town of Beaucaire which was won by the National Front during the 2014 March elections, she was acclaimed. She thanked the people gathered there “for being there to remind the freedom values” during the brief speech she gave from the balcony of the town hall on which floated a banner stating “ I’m Charlie - Tribute to victims of Islamist terrorism”.
Does French society have a distinctive problem with Islamophobia?
French society has a systemic racism problem, which, for the past decades has been more openly and specifically expressing itself through Islamophobia. Last April, the National Advisory Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH), which reviews racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts and threats in France, stated in its 2014 annual report that racism has been steadily on the rise for years and nothing seems able to stop its progress. It specifically pointed out how Muslims and Roma people were the new scapegoats. And for the first time, an official institution defended the use of the term “Islamophobia” to describe what has been happening. And to further illustrates this point: one of the top 3 best-selling books right now in France is Michel Houellebecq’s new Islamophobic novel, “Submission”, that some have compared to Maurice Drumont’s best-selling 1886 essay “La France Juive” (“Jewish France”), the seminal work of contemporary anti-Semitism. Houellebecq’s book, which was launched on January 7th, beat to the top of the charts “The French Suicide”, a polemic with similar themes by Islamophobe and reactionary “journalist” Eric Zemmour.
There has been much talk of France’s secular tradition. What does this tradition mean, and how should the left view the relationship between religious minorities and wider society?
French current secular regime (“laïcité”) is based on the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State which prohibits the state from recognizing or funding any religion (except for legacy statutes like those of the local law of Alsace-Moselle). Instead, it recognizes religious organizations, according to formal legal criteria that do not address religious doctrine, and protect religious freedom. Over the past two decades, the laïcité concept, which is ensconced into the Constitution, and the 1905 law have been mostly used against Muslims. After the infamous 2004 law “secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools” which overwhelmingly targeted young Muslim school girls, another law, specifically aimed at the few thousand women wearing the niqab and the burqa, which made it illegal to hide the face in public spaces was passed in 2011. Those juridical measures were supported by a large majority of the population and of the political forces. It fuelled Islamophobia and emboldened regular citizens to be openly racist. Other public institutions besides middle and high schools tried and succeed in widening the scope of the law: Muslims mothers accompanying school visits, Muslim female university students, Muslim female patients at hospitals, Muslim women acting as witnesses at weddings or receiving their naturalization papers were denied public service, insulted and humiliated.
Unfortunately, in all of those instances, the left failed to stand in solidarity with Muslim people, as it always should do when it comes to religious and any other oppressed groups or minorities. And in many cases, it took part in the attacks, adding insult to the injuries, as illustrated by Charlie Hebdo’s decade-long stream of Islamophobic caricatures.
How has the left responded to the crisis resulting from the attacks? What should the French left do now to condition the arguments in society about Islamophobia and terrorism?
The left, as in the radical left, has, for the most part, joined the Socialist Party government’s call for the December 11 “national unity” demonstrations, claiming to do so for its own (progressive) principles. This decision has created a lot of debates within our ranks about the nature, significance and impact of the December 11 demonstrations, about how we assess the political situations, and what we should do know. There is also an important conversation to have about the left’s own political responsibility when confronted with what we now know about the socio-economic background, political trajectory and targets of the January 7th and 9th killers. There is a lot of uneasiness at the hard and complex truth we have to face. Most opposed the anti-Muslims attacks, at least formally, but no concrete action has been taken to mobilize against Islamophobia. And that is what is most urgent: to take the initiative back, clear our minds and organize working and popular class unity to fight back against racism alongside antiracist and Muslim organisations, and against the anti-democratic measures that the government is set to further push in the name of the defence of “republican values”.