Journalist and anti-racist campaigner Rokhaya Diallo. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images
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In France, who gets to be a feminist?

The decision by the mayor of Paris’s 20th arrondissement to withdraw from an event with a well-known feminist and anti-racist campaigner has sparked questions of how racism and Islamophobia are discussed in France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

I went to a talk in Paris’s 20th arrondissement last night (in north-east Paris). I was lucky to get a seat, as the room was really packed. There were a few hundred people, of all ages, all sexes, all sexual orientations and all skin tones, some standing in the back.

Initially, the talk was supposed to happen inside the walls of the 20th arrondissement council. But its Parti Socialiste mayor, Frédérique Calandra, declared she wouldn’t let journalist and anti-racist campaigner Rokhaya Diallo, one of the scheduled speakers, take part. The decision backfired, the event was rescheduled somewhere else, and here we were, attending a talk on violence against women, the lot of us.

Why had the mayor decided Diallo was persona non grata? In a statement published on her public Facebook profile, she wrote:

“Diallo has made herself known for campaigning for the abolition of laws forbidding ostentatious religious signs from schools and public space. The act of covering women’s heads with a veil indicating that they are, by nature, impure and temptresses for men, one will agree that Ms Diallo’s feminist committment does not seem obvious.”

And she continued, explaining that Diallo had co-signed a text criticising Charlie Hebdo’s editorial line in 2011, refusing to express solidarity after a hand grenade had been thrown in their offices, had said that she agreed with Osama bin Laden on the radio in 2010, had given a Y’a Bon award for racism to journalist Caroline Fourest in 2012 and publicly asked Qatar to buy Charlie Hebdo in order to stop the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad.

Initially, Calandra had been bolder in her condemnation of Diallo, declaring to Mediapart website that “[Callo]is as made for feminism as I am made to be an archbishop.” That’s an interesting statement, considering Diallo is a well-known feminist and anti-racist campaigner in France. She also happens to be black.

A few French feminists signed a statement supporting Calandra, among which some well-known campaigners against prostitution.

I spoke to Diallo about this debacle and she told me that she had been really surprised to be banned from participating. Emmanuelle Rivier, a Europe Ecologie les Verts elected official in charge of the equality between women and men portfolio at the council, had organised a series of events around international women’s day, to celebrate the work of Christine Delphy. Now in her seventies, Delphy is a very important figure of French feminism, who introduced the notion of “gender” to  France, created the MLF (the women’s liberation front) in 1970, was among those who signed the Manifest of the 343 (where 343 women declared, in an act of civil disobedience, that they had had an abortion, which was illegal at the time and eventually led to the passing of a law allowing abortions in 1975).

Besides, Rivier, who took part in the rescheduled discussion, told me: “Delphy is one of the very few French feminist who opposed the law excluding pupils from schools because they wore religious signs”, refering to a law passed in 2004.

“It seems that in France you can’t defend the right of women to dispose of their own bodies and wear a hijab”, Diallo told me. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, tensions on the issue have been stirred, the Parti Socialiste State Secretary for women’s rights having recently declared herself in favour of a hijab ban in French universities.

Diallo added: “By reproaching me to have supported bin Laden, Calandra makes it sound as if I had supported terror attacks. What I said was that we should not let the fact that bin Laden was calling for a withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan actually prevent us from withdrawing our troops.” As for her past criticism of Charlie Hebdo, Diallo reminded me than in 2011, no one had died. “I find the current witch hunt very frightening. People have looked up all the people who ever said something negative about Charlie Hebdo and said they were responsible for what happened in January”, she said.

As for the Y’a Bon award for racism, it was attributed to a journalist who has recently been convicted of libel and whose Islamophobic tendencies have been well documented (see my piece about it here). The post where Diallo and others called for Qatar to buy Charlie Hebdo was actually a joke, she explained.

More generally, what is at stake, according to Diallo, is the fact “the Parti socialiste has been used to talking in the name of minorities. They did it when they took over the 1983 march for equality and against racism via SOS Racisme. All they know is Ni Putes Ni Soumises [a feminist organisation that had strong ties to the Parti socialiste], I think they are facing minorities being autonomous from political power and speaking in their own voice for the first time.”

Contrarily to Christine Delphy, Diallo has sided against the criminalisation of clients of prostitution. Analysing the vision of feminism expressed by Calandra, and many in the Parti Socialiste ranks, she says: “What we have here is a middle class feminism, conservative and paternalistic – or rather, in this case, maternalistic. Be it on the headscarf or on prostitution, people are talking about things they have never encountered. When I talk about women wearing headscarves, it’s women that I have met. To me they are women before being women who wear a headscarf. These two issues show politicians’ disconnect with what is taking place on the ground. But yesterday’s meeting proved something is changing, that there is an unstoppable movement of people who are not willing to listen to what the Parti Socialiste says about who is a good feminist.”

Recently, another cancellation showed that questions related to racism and Islamophobia in particular are a sore point for the French left. Europe Ecologie les Verts announced they would take part in a meeting against islamophobia taking place on 6 March in the Saint Denis Parisian suburb, before announcing they would not, as they did not wish to be associated with some of the organisers.

Rivier, who had organised the event, was shocked by Diallo’s ban, but issued a word of warning, related to the current economical policy of the government: “We need to be careful about the fact that while everyone is at war on social issues, having to struggle with neo-conservative discourse, equality and rights are being dismantled.”

All the events scheduled around Christine Delphy have now been cancelled by the council. The 20th arrondissement mayor has not replied to a request for comment at the time of publication.

In Paris, a march for women’s rights will take place on 8 March. A small collective called le 8 Mars pour toutes (“8 March for everybody”) is organising all alternative march and claim they support women who have been left out of mainstream feminism, be their trans, hijabis or sex workers.

Update, 1815:

Mayor Frédérique Calandra has commented:

“As a woman who has been involved for more than 30 years in humanitary work and politics, and who for the last 7 years has been the mayor of one of the biggest districts of Paris, I am well aware of the difficulties that women can face, of the violence and humiliations that they sometimes experience, and I will always oppose those who in the name of feminism and defense of individual freedom, pass on and promote discriminatory positions towards women and constrain them to a determined identity.”

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French freelance journalist. She reports on social issues and contributes to the LRB, the Guardian, Index on Censorship and French Slate, with a particular interest in France and Russia. She is on Twitter as @valeria_wants.

 

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.