Thursday, December 2, 2010

Au revoir, Ilham (et bonjour, tristesse)

It's official: Ilham Moussaïd and 11 of her colleagues have resigned from the NPA's Vaucluse chapter, after eight months of fruitless negotiation with the central party. Moussaïd gave the party its most widespread--though least welcome--burst of publicity last February when she appeared on the list of local candidates in the regional election wearing the Islamic headscarf she favors. Squeezed between the strident criticisms of feminists and secularists, she held her ground--and insisted on her qualifications as a long-time social and party activist--with grace and poise that belied her 21 years. (See my previous post, "Veiled Threat," 2/15/10) After a storm of polemics, mostly hostile, both inside the party and in highly visible venues such as the Idées pages of Le Monde, Ilham and her local supporters had hoped the delicate issues of tolerance and diversity she raised could be fully aired in a party congress. But as that public debate receded in time--originally scheduled for November, then December, now February--she apparently lost confidence in the party's openness to her situation, and now her chapter is closed.

But the larger question is anything but resolved. If no one anywhere on the French political scene was willing to rise to her defense, the fact remains that France's Muslim presence, like the rest of Europe's (and North America's) is growing, and the willingness of such immigrants and their children to forswear all allegiance to their culture of origin is in decline. Moussaïd, let's be clear, was no fundamentalist. Her belief system is shaped by Marxism and social justice more than the Koran, but like many young people in her working class suburb of Avignon, and in many other such communities, she declined to abandon this simple gesture of adherence to a norm of appearance. Dutiful? Perhaps, but certainly not subservient, as so many feminists were wont to charge, safe in their make-up and figure-flattering outfits.

While Ilham is at best a footnote, her story I feel is devastating for the NPA (which is hemorrhaging members for a variety of reasons), and for the immediate future of the far-left. My assumption had been that the disaffected young people of the quartiers (many of them French citizens) would represent not just a ripe harvest for the NPA, whose program speaks directly to their needs, but would define a historic mission for the party: to bring the alienated sectors of immigrant populations into the political process where their increasing numbers could lead to real social power and thus broader integration. Ilham's headscarf was not an impediment to this project. But the "petrified" attitudes of the traditional militants were. (The term belongs to Moussaïd's supporter Omar Slaouti, who ran a dignified if futile regional campaign as head of the NPA's list in the Île-de-France.) This situation will not improve as the phobic secularist Jean-Luc Mélenchon assumes the mantle of the far-left. Moussaïd and other promising young people like her will continue their social activism, while the political sphere maintains the purity of its laicité. But in the changed circumstances of the present, that laicité wears no clothes.


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