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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.