The near-fatal stabbing of Salman Rushdie in the US on 12 August dominated the headlines in France as soon as the news broke. From the television networks, major newspapers and magazines to local titles, everyone treated it as an event of global significance. But the attack also had specific and provisional resonances.
Since Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa of 1989, which called for Rushdie’s assassination following the publication of The Satanic Verses the previous year, the French literary establishment has embraced the British-American novelist as a champion of its own fight against censorship and totalitarianism. A faith in the absolute freedom of artistic expression has been a cornerstone of French identity since the rabid eroticisms of the 18th-century writer the Marquis de Sade. But this ideal now faces direct challenges from those who think it is outdated and unsuited to a multicultural society. Such shifting social mores pose delicate political problems for others who remain faithful to total artistic licence.
This was first indicated in the official French government response to the attack. In a tweet, Emmanuel Macron said: “For 33 years, Salman Rushdie has embodied freedom and the fight against obscurantism. He has just been the victim of a cowardly attack by the forces of hatred and barbarism. His fight is our fight; it is universal. Now more than ever, we stand by his side.”
Notably, the French president avoided any direct reference to “Islam” or “Islamism”, using only the terms “obscurantism” or “barbarism”. In recent years, Macron has been criticised by moderate Muslims for targeting all Muslims in his responses to Islamist terrorist killings; he did not want to face such accusations again.
But Macron reinforced the concept of the “universal” nature of the French Republic and the “universality” of its self-declared common values. It was a sly move, allowing him to sidestep accusations of singling out any particular religion for criticism, while asserting the primacy of the republic’s moral authority.
Other French politicians were equally diplomatic. Macron’s tweet was followed by comments from Jack Lang. It was Lang who, as minister of culture under François Mitterrand in the 1980s, sanctioned the translation of The Satanic Verses into French and campaigned for Rushdie to be allowed into France in 1993 despite concerns for the writer’s safety. (At the time, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut also complained that by refusing Rushdie entry, the French government was “appeasing” Iran for its oil.)
In 1999, Lang presented the novelist with the award of Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. With this honour, Rushdie was firmly enshrined in the heart of the French cultural establishment.
In the days after the 12 August attack, the luminaries of French literature, including Alain Mabanckou, Leïla Slimani and Kamel Daoud, rallied to Rushdie’s defence. Most of them did not shy away from naming Islamism as the enemy of France. But they were not simply denouncing an assault on a fellow author; Rushdie occupies a greater presence than that in the French imagination. In the newspaper Le Figaro on 13 August the philosopher Pascal Bruckner called Rushdie “the Anglo-Indian Voltaire”. A day later, in the same newspaper, the Académie Goncourt, the controlling body of the most prestigious literary prize in France, described Rushdie as “an unshakeable symbol of resistance in the face of Islamist totalitarianism and obscurantism”.
On 14 August, the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, a long-time friend and supporter of Rushdie, wrote an article in the Journal du Dimanche, calling for Rushdie to be awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. The proposal from Lévy, who is known for his controversial pronouncements, was dismissed by many as typical “BHL” hyperbole, while some criticised him for antagonising Muslims.
Rushdie is not only seen as a symbol of freedom, however, but also as the living avatar of la loi de la liberté de la presse (the law for freedom of the press), an act that dates back to 1881 and permits free speech in almost all circumstances. These days it is illegal in France to incite racial hatred, deny crimes against humanity such as genocide, or publish hate language on social media. Otherwise, all forms of speech and thought are effectively lawful, including blasphemy.
This law still divides French society between those who believe that the 1881 ruling remains a core value of the French Republic and those who oppose it, arguing that it constitutes a charter for blasphemy. This dividing line came into sharp relief following the January 2015 massacre at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by two Islamists who accused the magazine of insulting Islam, and the October 2020 killing of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who was decapitated by an Islamist because it was alleged he had shown his pupils obscene images of the Prophet Muhammad.
Alongside these horrors, France has also been divided over the so-called Mila affair. This began in January 2020 when a 16-year-old singer, Mila – only identified by her first name – hosted a live stream on social media, during which she refused sexual advances from a man who claimed to be Muslim. Mila, who had told her followers that she was gay, said that she was not attracted to black or Arab women. Mila was subsequently inundated with threats of murder and rape, as well as accusations that she was a racist and anti-Muslim. Unafraid, she responded with insulting and blasphemous remarks about Islam, inviting further threats.
The press and some on social media called her “the teenage Rushdie”. But Mila became a politically divisive figure, as moderate MPs on both the right and left were reluctant to offer her public support for fear of a Muslim backlash. She was defended by a handful of feminist and LGBTQ+ groups but by few others, until Marine Le Pen tweeted that “this young girl” had “more courage than the entire political class in power for the past 30 years”.
Le Pen’s opportunistic comments revealed the fatal inconsistency in the literary establishment’s eager defence of Rushdie: that it is easier to back a prize-winning novelist than defend a vulnerable gay teenage girl from the French provinces.
From this point of view, the outpouring of support for Rushdie from the great and the good in France might seem like little more than hypocrisy. Most dangerously, the political dithering over the Mila affair has allowed the far right to present itself as the true defender of French values and the French Republic, mostly by attacking Islamism. Accordingly, centrist politicians’ bad faith over the Rushdie affair was targeted by the political scientist Arnaud Benedetti in an article published on 18 August by the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles. In it, Benedetti blamed both Islamist fanaticism and French political cowardice for the attack on Rushdie.
Another magazine, the contrarian title Franc-Tireur, rushed out an issue dedicated to Rushdie, with a cover story by Philippe Val, a former editorial director of Charlie Hebdo (who was in charge in 2005 when the satirical title published controversial Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad). In the piece, Val repeated Benedetti’s argument: as long as French life was dominated by fear, all French people were hostages to Islamist fanatics. The story carried the headline “You are Rushdie”.
But despite his long-standing national eminence, Rushdie has not always been a hero for everyone in France. I encountered the fury that the novelist can provoke in 1989, only a few weeks after the fatwa had been issued. I was then a young postgraduate researcher in Dijon, teaching English on the side to make some extra money. One of those I taught was a medical student from Syria who spoke fluent French and carried a French passport. The one-to-one classes were friendly and good natured until I casually broached the subject of the fatwa, remarking on the madness of religious extremism versus artistic freedom. My student exploded with rage, accusing me of stupidity and ignorance, and stormed out of the classroom. I never saw him again.
Thirty-three years later, the divisions in France between those who champion Rushdie and those who hate him (or want him dead) have only hardened. A quick tour around the French-speaking internet reveals a powerful core of Muslims, not all of them radicals, who believe Rushdie has been co-opted by the “official France” which they regard as their enemy. For these people, Rushdie is an antagonistic emblem of the French Republic, which preaches unlimited artistic freedom at the cost of causing hurt and offence to the beleaguered community of French Muslims. For all the grand rhetoric that surrounds Rushdie in cultural and political circles, the dissenting voices are growing stronger. Few will admit it, but the Rushdie affair has further exposed the fault lines of 21st-century France.
Andrew Hussey’s books include “The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs” (Granta)
This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars