The World according to Caroline Fourest

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky

On 22 October, the French journalist and LGBT activist Caroline Fourest was convicted of slandering a young woman called Rabia Bentot during her weekly slot on France Culture, a public radio station. She has said she will appeal.

Bentot was 17 when she was assaulted on 20 May 2013 by two men in Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris. Interviewed with her father on Oumma, a website for the French Muslim community, she explained that two shaven-headed men had insulted her (calling her a ‘whore’ and a ‘dirty Muslim’, telling her to ‘go back to your country’), grabbed her headscarf and hit her repeatedly until a passer-by intervened, allowing her to run away. When she went to the police, she said, they let her file a complaint but didn't take her seriously, refused to acknowledge that the assault had a racist dimension and asked her to keep it quiet for fear of causing uproar in the Muslim community. Her father said in the Oumma interview that it was only after he came back from a trip abroad and contacted the CRI and other anti-Islamophobia organisations that the family got any support.

The following month, another young woman wearing a headscarf was assaulted in Argenteuil. She was pregnant and miscarried a few days later. Unlike Bentot, Leïla O. refused to talk to the press.

Fourest began her career in the late 1990s with the magazine ProChoix, which she and her partner Fiammetta Venner set up to defend a woman's right to control her own body. They wrote a book that named the Front National's donors and another that named mayors opposed to civil partnerships for same-sex couples. She was considered part of the libertarian left.

Then in 2003, Fourest and Venner published Crossfire: Secularism Put to the Test by Jewish, Christian and Muslim Fundamentalism, in which they concluded that ‘next to Muslim fundamentalism, Jewish and Christian fundamentalisms appear like marginal phenomena... of no consequence’. In 2004, Fourest supported the law forbidding religious symbols in state schools. In 2006, she published The Obscurantist Temptation, in which she accused a section of the French left of having joined forces with Islamists. She started appearing on TV and was given a weekly column in Le Monde (until 2012). In 2008 Libération profiled her as a crusader for secularism. She speaks on France Culture every Tuesday.

On her radio show (Le Monde selon Caroline Fourest) in June 2013, Fourest alleged that Bentot ‘didn't file a complaint straight away’, that her father ‘keeps interrupting his daughter’ in their interview with Oumma and that the police ‘don't exclude a family feud’ as the motive behind the assault. The court found last month that none of these allegations was grounded in fact. Hosni Maati, Bentot’s solicitor, told me that the idea that her family could have been behind the assault was especially unbearable.

In Fourest's broadcast, the women were presented not as victims so much as potential suspects. Fourest made much of the fact that Leïla initially spoke of a blow directed at her belly, while her statement to the police refers to a blow directed at her hip. By pointing to alleged inconsistencies in the young woman's statement, Fourest – evidently forgetting her experience as a campaigner fighting violence against women – borrowed a tactic used frequently by rapists to protest their innocence.

She went on to attack the organisations that supported Bentot and Leïla, which have all campaigned against Islamophobia, including the CRI, the CFPE (Feminist Collective for Equality) and Indigènes de la République. ‘These organisations, which fight for the headscarf, while being close to the Muslim Brothers and their preachers’ are well-known for their desire to ‘create a rivalry between different types of racism’, Fourest said. ‘They think we denounce racism against Jews too much and racism against Muslims not enough, maybe because one type of racism bothers them less than the other.’

Saïd Bouamama, one of the founders of Indigènes de la Républiques, told me that ‘the fact that Fourest is still able to appear in the media while claiming such things reveals the level of confusion present in the French media since 2004, when being free to dress as one liked came to be seen as an equivalent to religious proselytism.’ Bouamama says that he hasn't fought for the headscarf but defends women's right to dress as they like, and that he isn’t close to the Muslim Brothers (‘they accuse me of being a supporter of secularism’).

At the end of her broadcast, Fourest concluded that ‘women wearing a headscarf are not attacked because they are women but because they are Muslim... So it doesn’t demand a specifically feminine or feminist solidarity.’ This is asking us to chose between feminism and anti-racism. But as Bouamama puts it, ‘there isn't one feminism but several feminisms, with women speaking from the different positions of domination they are experiencing.’

Fourest's views and journalistic methods have got her in trouble before. In 2012, she was given a Y'a Bon Award (a satirical prize for racist discourse) for her attack on ‘associations that ask for gyms where they can organise basketball tournaments for headscarf-wearing women only, and also raise funds for Hamas’. Two months ago, the CSA, which regulates French radio and TV, criticised her for making unverified claims about atrocities committed by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine (‘separatist paramilitaries,’ she said, ‘had just cut out their eyeballs with a knife’).

Fourest remains very visible and audible. Her conviction for defamation wasn’t covered by Le Monde, Libération or Le Figaro. She was recently made an associate of Britain’s National Secular Society. In Pourquoi les gays sont passés à droite?, the writer and gay activist Didier Lestrade asked the right question about Fourest: ‘How does a lesbian, well aware of the simplistic coverage and misrepresentation of her own minority in the media, end up reproducing exactly the same stigmatising treatment of Muslims?’


  • 19 November 2014 at 1:46pm
    Alex K. says:
    The author fails to mention that, if the English and French Wikipedia pages on Fourest are to be trusted, the journalist was also convicted in 2012 of defaming Marie Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen and Marie's first husband, Franck Chauffroy, and in 2013, of defaming an associate of Marie, Frédéric Chatillon. Early this year, Fourest published a book on - or an "ode" to, as one review put it - Inna Shevchenko, the Ukrainian-born leader of Femen. In other words, there has been no sign that Fourest's anti-FN, pro-feminist views have changed. Perhaps it is worth giving her the benefit of the doubt and discuss whether her claims could have merit. The defamation ruling, assuming the court did not err, only means that Fourest failed to support her claims with documentary evidence at the time of the hearing. It is remarkable that, according to Fourest, Radio France is also appealing the verdict.

    • 20 November 2014 at 5:30am
      Higgs Boatswain says: @ Alex K.
      I'm not sure that a person who accuses other women of faking assaults and blames them for their own victimisation really deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt, even if she does call herself a feminist. What is really interesting here, however, is the peculiarly French phenomenon that Fourest represents: Islamophobic feminism among white, middle-class self-proclaimed defenders of Republican secularism. Femen, with its juvenile breast-baring antics and anti-Islamist rhetoric, is largely a manifestation of this constituency too.

      In Britain, most public voices of feminism come from much the same social class and educational background as those in France, but here at least feminists usually have the courtesy to pretend that Muslims and immigrants and sex-workers and other marginal women's voices might have valid contributions to make to feminist discourse. Not so in France, it would seem, where there is increasingly only one acceptable way of being a feminist, and it admits no place for dissenting minorities.

    • 21 November 2014 at 8:46am
      Alex K. says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      Caroline Fourest deserves the benefit of the doubt because of her feminist and anti-National Front credentials and because of commonsense reasons to doubt that Rabia Bentot's alleged account of the attack is her own, rather than her father's or his "integrist" associates. In her TV interviews, Rabia appeared reluctant to speak on her own, not answering questions and not making unprepared statements; her father usurped her agency of speech. One can view Fourest's stance as profoundly feminist, pointing out the patriarchal power of the Muslim father over his traumatized daughter.

      If French feminists see Muslim communities as islands of male domination held together by a deeply archaic, misogynist worldview, it is their duty to help young women to emancipate themselves from those communities and, if necessary, from their oppressive families. From Islam itself, perhaps - for most strains of Islam practiced in the West appear ambivalent at best on women's autonomy and human liberty in general. I am not aware of a major branch of Euro-Islam similar to Reform Judaism in its wholehearted support of progressive causes.

    • 28 November 2014 at 11:27am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Alex K.
      Fairly typical patronising rubbish. Why do commentators such as the above always insist on infantilising Muslim women and assuming they are dominated by 'patriarchal power'? Having just watched the interview on YouTube, all I saw was a quiet but articulate young women and her understandably angry but controlled father. Rather than being 'reluctant to speak on her own', she spoke for the first two minutes without hesitation while her father sat patiently listening. So, your account is mendacious as well as patronising.

    • 29 November 2014 at 12:49pm
      Alex K. says: @ Alan Benfield
      "Patronizing" and "appeared reluctant" are matters of opinion but calling my comment "mendacious" is accusing me of lying. You are welcome to disagree with my view of Rabia Bentot's statements as well prepared in advance but you have no valid reason to call me a liar.

      If you care to re-read my comment, you will see that it is structured in "if-then" terms: assuming A, we should accept B. I am not necessarily insisting that A is true but merely pointing out that if it is, feminists should rally for, not against, Fourest.

    • 4 December 2014 at 2:20pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Alex K.
      Your reply is Jesuitical, to say the least: it seems it is okay for you to accuse Rabia Bentot and her father of lying (which is essentially what you do by implying they are just spouting prepared statements which are wholly or partly untrue and what got Fourest her €6000 bill for defamation), but when someone calls you out on it you claim it was a hypothetical. I don't see any evidence of the 'if...then' structure you claim. The only thing I can deduce from your original comment is that you are accusing them both of not answering questions but making 'prepared statements', the implication being that if pre-prepared, such statements must be false, or at least embroider the truth.

      Even if it is not a lie, that's at least a distortion on your part, and I can see no evidence for it in the interview.

  • 21 November 2014 at 6:49am
    farthington says:
    In 2011. the French academic Pascal Boniface published a book called Les Intellecuels Faussaires: le triomphe médiatique des experts en mensonge.
    (The text was rejected by multiple publishers and he eventually got it published by a small press.)
    Boniface places Fourest amongst a number of 'public intellectuals' regularly feted by the French media, public and private.
    Costa-Kostrisky clearly lays out the mentality of Fourest, so why the benefit of the doubt?
    Boniface confirms the present author's reportage in spades.
    Boniface has recently published another book (again after great difficulty), Le France malade du conflict israélo-palestinien.
    The pervasive claims of rampant anti-semitism in France is simply a beat-up (not least by the media stars mentioned in Boniface's 'faussaires' book) to maintain support for Israel in France. By contrast, islamophobia is widespread, is dangerous (as these instances highlight) and is generally unchecked by the authorities.
    In the meantime, the French mainstream media is a joke.

    • 21 November 2014 at 8:56am
      Alex K. says: @ farthington
      What's wrong with Fourest's mentality if she sees the obvious: Muslim women are mentally maimed by their misogynist, atavistically religious families to a greater degree than they are hurt by Islamophobia?

    • 21 November 2014 at 9:40am
      stettiner says: @ farthington
      As a member of the Socialist Party at that time, Boniface made some math in the year 2002 and came to the conclusion that it's smarter to team up with the many against the few. The Muslims and their organisations will grow in importance, let's forget the Jews, was his appeal; a French equivalent of James Baker's "F''k the Jews, they don't vote for us anyway".

      Now he tells us that last summer's pogroms in France are just our imagination, in farthington's words just "a beat-up (...) to maintain support for Israel in France". I find it hard to believe this man has any problems with being published. Why, he's a match made in heaven for Le Monde or France 2!

    • 21 November 2014 at 10:49am
      farthington says: @ Alex K.
      The women referred to here were physically attacked by people evidently by islamophobes and misogynists. Fourest is legitimising this environment.

    • 21 November 2014 at 10:56am
      farthington says: @ stettiner
      Stettiner has got his view of Boniface straight from the back of a Zionist cornflakes box. Boniface explicitly refutes the claim made here, that his stance was driven by electoral pragmatism, in his boook. It is a calumny on his integrity. Contemptible.
      Last suummer's pogroms? There were no 'pogroms'. There were predictable demonstrations against the Israeli massacre in Gaza. There was an incident initiated and blown up by the violent LDJ (Ligue de Défense Juive).

    • 21 November 2014 at 11:23am
      stettiner says: @ farthington
      The poor demonstrators couldn't whack more Jews, vandalize shops and set fire to more synagogues because of the despicable LDJ.... Where's Vichy, when needed?!

    • 28 November 2014 at 11:33am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Alex K.
      'Misogynist, atavistically religious families'? Bit of a sweeping statement, don't you think? Have you ever met any Muslims?

      I am an atheist, by the way, in case you think I am some sort of Islamic troll...

    • 29 November 2014 at 1:06pm
      Alex K. says: @ Alan Benfield
      My comment was somewhat elliptical: what I meant was IF some Muslim families fit my description, then Fourest's stance is but appropriate.

      I live in a country where a significant number of citizens come from historically Muslim families, some of which have lived on this land for longer than the average citizen. So yes, I have met and worked with Muslims, although of an entirely different sort than Rabia's father - none of them would imagine forcing his daughter to wear that black habit.

    • 4 December 2014 at 2:58pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Alex K.
      There you go again: 'You misunderstood my hypothetical intent'.

      Yeah, right.

      And what evidence do you have that 'Rabia’s father... forc(es) his daughter to wear that black habit' (which appears to be dark brown, actually)?

      Here in the Netherlands many young Muslim women have started to adopt various styles of Islamic dress as a lifestyle choice, often as a reaction to the utterances of islamophobes (of whom we have many high-profile ones, notably Geert Wilders and his PVV). For many older women it is just traditionally how they dress. When I was a child growing up in London, many women habitually wore headscarves when out of the house, especially in church. Nowadays they mostly don't. What conclusions can we draw from all this?

      Exactly none. Your attitudes betray you, I am afraid.

  • 29 November 2014 at 1:10pm
    Alex K. says:
    "Zionist cornflakes box," "Israeli massacre in Gaza," "violent LDJ". Wow.

  • 15 January 2015 at 6:36pm
    BrianS says:
    "Fourest – evidently forgetting her experience as a campaigner fighting violence against women – borrowed a tactic used frequently by rapists to protest their innocence."

    The writer of this article has insulted rape victims with this inapt comparison, borne out of cynical opportunism.

    Female victims of NON-sexual violence are not systematically accused of making false claims. Fourest has borrowed no tactics from any group by pointing out apparent inconsistencies of testimony & evidence.

    Female RAPE victims & victims of SEXUAL assault are systematically accused of lying although statistically their claims are vastly true. That's part of what is now called "rape culture."

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