Interview by Jim Wolfreys, March 2010
The candidacy of New Anti-capitalist Party activist Ilham Moussaïd caused controversy in France because she chooses to wear a hijab. She spoke to Jim Wolfreys about challenging capitalism and Islamophobia
Nadine Morano, a member of the right wing government of François Fillon, was questioned recently about the compatibility between Islam and the French Republic. She replied, "What I want from a young Muslim, when he's French, is that he loves his country, that he finds a job, that he doesn't speak back slang, and that he doesn't put his cap on back to front."
Whatever else one might think of her statement, Morano was at least being consistent in pursuing the French political elite's obsession with what Muslims wear on their heads. It has been a consistent theme in the high-profile debate on national identity that the government has been running over the past few months. President Sarkozy's claim that the burqa represents an affront to human rights has been backed up by moves to prevent the tiny number of women who wear the burqa and the niqab from doing so in public places like schools or post offices. This followed earlier legislation banning the wearing of the hijab or headscarf in schools. Frédéric Lefebvre, spokesperson for Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, recently compared the burqa to "a Mickey Mouse mask".
Over the past month another furore has erupted, this time over the decision of the Vaucluse section of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA or New Anti-capitalist Party) to stand Ilham Moussaïd as a candidate in the forthcoming regional elections. Her hair is covered by a scarf. "The NPA stands a veiled candidate", ran the headline in the Le Figaro newspaper. As politicians from all the mainstream parties lined up to condemn the decision, I asked Ilham to explain the media uproar.
"I was very surprised that there's been so much media attention about my candidacy. What I've seen and heard on the TV is that the NPA is courting the quartiers populaires [impoverished working class areas or banlieues], and that it's an Islamo-leftist party. I find it shocking that politicians haven't been able to realise that it's perhaps the other way round - that people from these areas are interested in the NPA. So I'm surprised that they couldn't think for a moment that we might be concerned about our lives, that we've got our own political consciousness and that we want to get involved. Instead everyone's saying, 'No, it's Besancenot who's using them, buying them off.'
"The media reaction is firstly down to surprise that we're politically engaged. People in the quartiers populaires aren't that involved in politics. They're disappointed with politicians. We only see them at election time. We see them come here and try to buy us off. This is why they're depoliticised. That's why they don't really get involved.
"The second reason is that here's a woman with a headscarf, a Muslim, who's politically active - that also surprises them enormously because they think we're not capable of getting involved in politics. But if there's a fuss like this now it's also because there's an Islamophobic atmosphere in France at the moment. What I mean by that is that there's a debate on national identity, on the exclusion of the sans papiers [immigrants denied residence rights], on the burqa, and we get the impression that all this is against Muslims. If this had been about a woman wearing a cross, or about someone with a kippah, there wouldn't have been such a fuss. There are politicians who wear crosses and who say openly that they're Christians and nobody is shocked. But this apparently shocks a lot of people even though there are 4 million Muslims in France."
One of the most disappointing aspects of the controversy over Ilham's candidacy has been the attitude of the mainstream left, particularly the Socialist Party (PS). One Socialist deputy, Aurélie Filippetti, declared that the NPA's Olivier Besancenot should "re-read Marx". "Religion is the opium of the people," she said, addressing her remarks to the NPA. "Perhaps we should remind them that workers in France don't need to be told to go and read the Koran or the Bible or I don't know what." The party leader, Martine Aubry, also waded into the debate.
"Martine Aubry said that, in the name of secularism, she would never have let a veiled woman stand for election," said Ilham, "but we found out recently that there's already a woman with a headscarf on the PS lists. I don't think Aubry knows about this. In France there are 20 regions out of 22 that are run by the PS and these regions finance private Catholic schools. So when Martine Aubry talks to us about secularism she herself doesn't respect it by giving public money to these schools. If my candidacy wasn't secular there would be a law preventing people with religious symbols from standing. This isn't the case. So my candidature is both secular and legitimate."
More disappointing still was that Aubry's attitude was echoed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a prominent figure in many campaigns alongside the anti-capitalist left, who resigned from the Socialist Party to set up a radical alternative, the Left Party, over a year ago.
"Jean-Luc Mélenchon said that my candidacy didn't represent the majority," said Ilham. "I say to him that I'm an anti-capitalist activist, I'm a feminist, a secularist, an ecologist, so I think I'm capable of representing the values of the NPA and the majority of NPA activists because I share these values with them. We shouldn't focus on disunity - we should focus on the project I carry politically. The activists in the NPA say that I can represent them, so when Mélenchon says I can't represent the majority of the population, he's wrong. In my speeches I defend anti-capitalist and feminist ideas, the values and principles of the NPA."
One of the arguments used to condemn Ilham is that the headscarf is an affront to women, incompatible with feminism. "These feminists say that it's a symbol of oppression, of submission. For my part, I'm not submissive: it's a personal choice. I'm a feminist. I fight for women's rights with my women comrades. I fight for equality between men and women. I fight for the right to abortion, the right to contraception. It's true they see it as a symbol of oppression but unfortunately they forget that there are women who wear it out of choice. A certain number of women are obliged to wear it, of course, I don't deny that, and I'll fight for these women. But you can't say that all those who've chosen to wear a headscarf are submissive. It's not true. Once it's a question of personal choice you can't say the person is being oppressed, as these feminists argue.
"For me, being a feminist means defending the right of women to have control over their own lives. I have control over mine and I've made this choice but it's not respected. These feminists don't respect it because I haven't made the same choice as them. My response is that there's not just one way to be a feminist; there's not just one way to be a woman. We can't all be alike. We need to concentrate on what unites us, on the fight for equality between men and women, and not to say we should all dress the same way, that you can't wear a headscarf because otherwise you're not a feminist. I think that shows a lack of respect. I don't feel represented by feminists who say that the headscarf is always a question of obligation. There are a lot of feminists who agree with me, who see that I'm fighting the same battles as them, and they support me.
"Certain associations have lodged a complaint against me because they argue that my candidacy is a symbol of segregation between the sexes. The complaint was thrown out by the courts but it demonstrates the attitude of certain associations, which I find deplorable. But I've had a lot of support by mail from all over France and even Europe from people who support me. They can see that I defend the same principles as the NPA and they say I'm a good person to represent them, and I get support from others who aren't even in the NPA too. So I'm counting on these people and will continue to make our voice heard."
The NPA was formed a year ago when the revolutionary socialist organisation the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR or Revolutionary Communist League), dissolved itself to form a broader party along with activists involved in the various movements that have developed in France over the past two decades. Ilham was one of these activists.
"I've been politically active for four years now and the media reaction disturbs me because my political engagement can't be reduced to the headscarf. I'm part of an association that fights exclusion, racism and violence in the Avignon area. We offer support to young people in schools. We organise cultural and musical outings with them. We fight exclusion and discrimination in the quartiers populaires. I was also active in the collective networks against the war in Iraq, against apartheid in Palestine, and against the genocide in Rwanda and in Kosovo.
"So I do all that in parallel. I was always coming across NPA activists in all these movements and a year ago I decided to join them. Now I'm treasurer of my NPA branch and things are going well. I'm active in fighting privatisation, for example, in the universities and the post office. We're active every day.
"I got a very good welcome in the NPA. In the quartier populaires the NPA is something we have to make use of. It's our tool. For me it's our tool because we're building it. When the LCR became the NPA it was an opening out to the quartiers populaires. Olivier Besancenot said to us, 'If you want to fight capitalism - welcome.' He didn't say to us, 'If you're Marxists or Leninists or Trotskyists.' He just talked about capitalism because we're all against capitalism. It's the source of practically all our problems. I didn't join straight away but it's been a good experience. I already had my principles - for equality, for a better distribution of wealth - before joining the NPA, but I feel at home here. It's a political question - for me it's the best tool for our struggle.
"As for the headscarf, it's part of my identity. It's personal. I'm a feminist and an anti-capitalist activist like all the other women active in the NPA and I think we should concentrate on that. We shouldn't make a whole affair out of the headscarf. Muslims are part of the French population. It's normal that we see them getting involved in politics."
In 2005, a three-week uprising of youth from France's impoverished banlieues shook the political establishment. The following year, the possibility of those involved in the uprising making common cause with students fighting the government's plans for the casualisation of youth employment was explicitly raised by Sarkozy, interior minister at the time. He sent in the CRS riot police to break up a student occupation of Sorbonne University, arguing that he did not want to run the risk of seeing links made between the two groups.
This is one of the ways in which the emergence of the NPA represents a threat to the mainstream - the prospect of a combative, anti-racist, anti-capitalist organisation being built in the banlieues. Building such an organisation was never going to be easy. The present debate has, perhaps inevitably, caused some tension within the NPA. But it is part of a process that is crucial to the future of the radical left in France. The mainstream's reaction to Ilham's candidacy is an indication that they are aware of this too.
"We know that the right wants to divide in order to rule," said Ilham. "These debates, for example - on the burqa, on national identity - their aim is to divide us. There's not a real problem here: the real problems are about pensions, housing, job insecurity and unemployment. The right aren't dealing with these problems in the quartiers populaires. They're ghettoising us. At a certain point in history immigrants were ghettoised, left aside. Then, when they want to enter into society, to integrate, they find discrimination in employment, in housing, and so they go back to their ghettos, their banlieues, and that's where it exploded. I think these are the reasons for the uprising of young people.
"Between the PS, which always plays the Islamophobia card but gives money to private Catholic schools, and the right, which always tries to divide us with false debates, the NPA is something new. People will be able to say at last there's a party that defends Muslims because the others don't. The NPA isn't like them and it supports my candidacy, as Olivier Besancenot says, like it does any other. This proves that the NPA is becoming rooted in the quartiers populaires. The other parties haven't been able to do this because we just see them when there's an election. The rest of the year they're not here. We in the NPA are here all year round and that proves the party is becoming integrated into these areas.
"I think my candidacy is going to allow people from the quartiers populaires to get involved a bit more and to say, 'At last there's a party, the NPA, which is not Islamophobic and which is engaged in an anti-capitalist struggle.' So I see my candidacy as a good thing that's going to help other people to get involved, to stop them hesitating politically."
The hypocrites' ball
The controversy over Ilham Moussaïd's candidacy has sparked a lively debate in the NPA. This is an edited version of a response to the media frenzy by Fred Borras in the NPA newspaper, Tout est à nous.
We should not confuse the debate among activists of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) and within the social and feminist movements with the attacks coming from a substantial part of the political class.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of impartiality of a section of the media has been revealed. When a major radio station reports that the NPA has chosen to put forward a "Muslim fundamentalist in a burqa" for the elections, it is no longer news but delirium.
It would be better to start from the reality. Ilham wears a headscarf, not a burqa. She shows her religious beliefs, but also proclaims her agreement with the NPA's founding principles of anti-capitalism, anti-racism, feminism and secularism.
Nicolas Sarkozy's attack dogs have gone for us. Xavier Bertrand, having no concept of political communication other than manipulation, has predictably seen nothing but manipulation in the camp of Olivier Besancenot. Government minister Nadine Morano denounced "a public relations coup against the values of the Republic" - values of the Republic that Morano herself interpreted in a very particular way when she recently exhorted Muslims to "take off their caps", reinforcing a despicable Islamophobic and racist atmosphere.
They see no problem when the leader of their mob - president of the Republic and honorary canon of the St John Lateran Basilica in Rome - receives and embraces the pope with great pomp and circumstance, or when he publicly crosses himself on official visits. Nor is there a problem when the homophobic ultra-bigot Christine Boutin brandishes the Bible in the National Assembly.
The social democratic Socialist Party (PS) and French Communist Party (PCF) cannot resist joining in. Aurélie Filippetti of the PS suggests we reread our Marx. She should take her own advice. This would equip her to understand both the causes of capitalism's crisis and the insipidity of the PS's response. In any case, we must attribute to Marx what is actually from Marx. The much-cited dictum that "religion is the opium of the masses" is incomplete. Marx actually said:
"Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions."
The supposed defence of the secular is surreal - is this really the same PS that, hand in hand with the right, has subsidised private faith schools, particularly Catholic schools, to the tune of millions of euros?
Feigning disinterest, the future leader of the PCF Pierre Laurent claimed he wanted to avoid getting involved in the NPA's internal affairs - only to add that the feminists in the NPA "can only have been shaken by this kind of manoeuvre". Yet in the suburb of Echirolles the PCF itself is represented by a woman in a headscarf. Martine Aubry could also do with being more careful given that on the united left council of Creil the PS is represented by a councillor in a headscarf. Will these women now be told to resign?
We will give these attacks the attention they deserve without living in a state of siege. The NPA will face the storm united, as we embark upon a profound debate - both necessary and public.