Sunday, February 14, 2010

Veiled Threat?

I had stopped posting news about the French far-left, mainly out of despair at the failure of the various players to find grounds for a common slate in the March regional elections. But then into the arena marched an unlikely combatant, Ilham Moussaïd, a 21-year old NPA activist and candidate on the slate in the Vaucluse, and suddenly I find there is something important to say after all.

First of all, Ms. Moussaïd herself: born in Morocco, living most of her life in a largely immigrant suburb of Avignon, she was not apparently looking for the drama that has swept her up. By her account she became a local activist from the age of 13, forming a small group to render social services in a neighborhood where, as she has noted, the only visible presence of the state is its security forces. Drawn to the Revolutionary Communist League by its support for Palestine, she and her friends were welcomed as LCR members, and then encouraged to sign on when the LCR morphed into the NPA. While pursuing her post-secondary studies Ms. Moussaïd volunteered for the thankless job of local party treasurer, earned the gratitude of her comrades, and when it came time to choose an electoral slate, she won a spot pretty far down on the list.

In all this there is nothing very surprising, apart from the fact that her election was hotly contested, and nothing that would have made it a featured story in the right-wing paper Figaro ... except for the head scarf Ms. Moussäid habitually wears as a token of her Muslim beliefs. Suddenly she became the center of a firestorm of debate, both inside the party and all over the French national media. Never mind that the Abbé Pierre sat in the national assembly for years in his priest's cassock, or that several town councilors who are Muslim wear their scarves to meetings. Suddenly the secular principles of the Vth Republic are seen to totter (setting aside the fact that Ms. Moussaïd has no chance of winning a seat), and the NPA's lifelong Trotskyist leader Olivier Besancenot is being counseled--by a deputy from the Socialist party that embraces market principles!--to "re-read his Marx."

Where this episode is heading is not so clear--the NPA is trying desperately these last few days to change the subject in the media, and will have an internal debate, in the fall after the elections, where sparks will surely fly. It continues to fascinate me, though, both the issue and the incredibly lively and informed debate I monitor on NPA sites, and well as the sheer magnitude of the question (in this and other forms) that seems to hold France in thrall. How can the commonly held French idea of such things as secularity, diversity, assimilation, and the free exercise of religion be so very different from our own? Will there be no middle ground--in France, and in the rest of Western Europe--for immigrant and minority sub-cultures to coincide with adherence to national norms of residency and citizenship? That is, will young Muslims have to choose between increasingly integral Islam and a secular Frenchness that tolerates no ethnic hybridism? Will a left party such as the NPA (the Socialists have already disqualified themselves) be able to reach out to ethnic communities on terms congenial to their ethnic identities, or will it hold its members to a high standard of social integration? And for women in particular, will they have to renounce all religious adherence in order to be embraced as feminists by their secular French sisters? These are just a few of the many questions, with profound implications for the nature of democracy and civil liberty, that have been stirred up in Ms. Moussaïd's hornet's nest.

As for the primary subject herself, she professes to be as perplexed as I am by all the fuss. She declares herself a loyal anti-capitalist, and plaintively asks why eight years of steadfast activism on her part has been condensed by her erstwhile comrades into a simple headscarf. But she remains undaunted, pointing out to an interviewer that she was raised to believe in justice and equality, and insisting that those universal beliefs will see her through this crisis.

As the case evolves, I will be trying to use this blog to sort out my own impressions--and will welcome your comments.