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.

 

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump