Autumn in Paris

Musab Younis

On 11 October, Julien Odoul, an official from the Rassemblement National, formerly the Front National, interrupted a French regional council session to ask a woman in the audience either to remove her headscarf or leave. She was a volunteer accompanying children on a school trip. ‘Madame has ample time to wear her veil at home and on the street,’ Odoul said. ‘But not here, not today.’ When the council president refused to expel her, Odoul and his colleagues stormed out. A journalist took a photograph of the woman comforting her son, who was one of the children on the trip.

On 13 October, France’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, said that headscarves are ‘not desirable in our society’.

On 14 October, Yves Threard, the deputy editor of Le Figaro, said on the television debate show Le Grand Soir that he ‘hates the Muslim religion’ and once got off a bus because there was a veiled woman on it.

On the same day, the president of the centre-right party Les Républicains, Christian Jacob, said: ‘It shocks me that we accept that a veiled person can accompany children on school trips.’ (The word voile and its corresponding adjective voilé, ‘veiled’, are used in France to refer to anything a Muslim woman might wear on her head. What is being referred to is almost always in fact a headscarf, or foulard.)

On 15 October, Bruno Le Maire, the economy and finance minister, said: ‘The Islamic veil is not the desirable future of French culture and society.’

On 16 October, on his television show 9h Galzi, the journalist Olivier Galzi compared the veil to an SS uniform.

On 18 October, on the television show C à vous, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said: ‘The hijab is not France.’

On 19 October, hundreds of people demonstrated against Islamophobia at Place de la République in Paris. One of them was Clémentine Autain, a politician from La France Insoumise (‘France unbowed’), who warned that ‘the winds of Islamophobia are sweeping across our country.’

On 20 October, on the television show Le Grand Jury, Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National, said: ‘I want the veil to be banned in all public spaces.’

On 23 October, on the television show CNews, Eric Zemmour, a writer and journalist, mentioned the general who led the French conquest of Algeria: ‘When General Bugeaud arrives in Algeria, he begins to slaughter Muslims, and even some Jews. Well, I am today on the side of General Bugeaud. That’s what it is to be French.’

On 24 October, Claude Habib, a feminist author and professor of literature, wrote in Le Figaro that ‘the veil is so shocking in France because it opposes our culture of gallantry [notre culture galante].’ Such gallantry, she added, is defined by its ‘playful, light, eroticised’ nature, which is ‘inconceivable in the Islamic world’.

On 25 October, President Macron gave an interview to Valeurs actuelles, a far-right magazine that was fined €3000 in 2015 for ‘the provocation of discrimination, hate or violence towards Roma people’. In the interview, which ran to 12 pages, Macron said that he was ‘obsessed’ with immigration. ‘My goal is to throw out everybody who has no reason to be here.’ What did he think of the demonstration against Islamophobia? It was ‘non-aligned Third Worldism with a whiff of Marxism’.

On 28 October, a man tried to set fire to a mosque in Bayonne and then shot and seriously injured two Muslim men who confronted him. The alleged terrorist, 84-year-old Claude Sinké, had been a local election candidate for the Front National in 2015. He got 17.4 per cent of the vote.

On 29 October, the French Senate passed an amendment banning ‘the wearing of religious symbols’ by adults accompanying children on school trips. The amendment is unlikely to pass the lower house. During the debate, Jean-Louis Masson, an independent senator from Moselle, likened veiled women to ‘witches’. ‘If they’re not happy, they can go back to where they came from,’ he said.

On the same day, two hundred Malian migrants were evicted from the Foyer Bara hostel in the Paris suburb of Montreuil. The expulsion took place two days before la trêve hivernale, when evictions become illegal due to the cold weather.

On 1 November, Libération published a letter signed by more than fifty public figures supporting a demonstration in Paris to demand an end to anti-Muslim speech, discrimination against Muslim women, anti-Muslim violence and ‘abusive statements against Muslims from the highest level of the state’. Signatories included Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise; Benoît Hamon, the former leader of the Socialist Party; and David Cormand, national secretary of the Green Party.

Under pressure, the signatories soon began to cave in. Yannick Jadot of the Green Party discovered he had some issues with the letter. ‘I have never considered there to be state racism in our country,’ he said. François Ruffin, a film-maker and journalist associated with La France Insoumise, said he hadn’t read the text properly because he was ‘eating waffles with my children’ and that he couldn’t go to the demonstration because he was playing football that day. Mélenchon said he disagreed with the use of the term Islamophobia, because he wouldn’t want ‘to give the impression of banning criticism of a religion’. He has previously said that ‘the veil is a sign of submission’ and the burqa a ‘fundamentalist provocation against the Republic’. The national secretary of the Communist Party, Fabien Roussel, did not sign the letter, saying he found the term Islamophobia ‘reductive’. The Socialist Party did not sign the letter, saying: ‘We do not recognise ourselves in its slogans.’

On 6 November, the French prime minister, Edouard Philippe, said the government intends to ‘regain control’ over its immigration policy.

On 7 November police officers cleared a migrant camp housing more than a thousand people at the Porte de la Chapelle in northern Paris.

On 10 November, the day of the demonstration, Le Parisien ran a special front-page investigation into ‘forty years of Islamist terrorism’, underneath which it listed public figures who might be on the march. Aurore Bergé, the National Assembly spokesperson for Macron’s party, La République en Marche, tweeted that it was a ‘demonstration of shame’. Marine Le Pen declared that ‘all those who go to this demonstration will be hand in hand with Islamists’.

Le Monde estimated that 13,500 people marched from the Gare du Nord to Nation, singing as they went. Mélenchon showed up, as he had promised. Hamon was spotted with a baseball cap pulled down over his face. Other prominent politicians stayed away. Demonstrations in Paris typically attract people to their balconies. This time the windows mostly stayed shut, the blinds drawn. At one point, a woman in a housekeeper’s uniform swung open the windows of a hotel room and began dancing.

Demonstrators tweeted pictures of the crowd using the hashtag #Marche10Novembre. Across France, people used the hashtag to express their own views. ‘I’m not racist, but …’ one began.