Charlie Hebdo vs. Mediapart: French Left divided over Islam and secularism

23 November 2017 – VoxEurop

The satirical weekly and the investigative journalism website are at daggers drawn on how French society should handle secularism and Islam's place in it. It is a controversy that reflects the hardening confrontation within the French Left — to which they both belong.

Two womens’ recent accusations of rape and assault against the celebrated Swiss islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan have brought some unexpected consequences, very different to those provoked by the accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

The incident is in fact the occasion for a kind of settling of scores between the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, and Edwy Plenel, director of investigative journalism website, Mediapart. On the subject of religion, and in particular that of Islam, they have often been at odds with one another. Throwing the first stone this time round is Charlie. Their recent cover features an illustration depicting Plenel performing “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” with his moustache. The title – “The Ramadan affair, Mediapart reveals: ‘We didn’t know’” – is a not-so-subtle reference to Plenel’s apparent sympathy for the Islamic scholar.

Shortly after the attack against Charlie Hebdo — ten people, illustrators, journalists and other staff, were killed on January 7th 2015 in Paris — Plenel claimed that Ramadan, regularly accused by Charlie of “double-talk” (radical in arabic with the faithful, conciliating in French and English with westerners) is “a respectable intellectual” with no “ambiguity”. Plenel is also author of the essay, Pour les musulmans (“For the muslims”), in which he defends a minority which, he claims, embodies the modern proletariat, neglected by a zealously secular left that has lost its bearings. He has also taken part in numerous conferences on Islam with Ramadan, and has always insisted on the necessity of allowing even the more radical voices, like Ramadan, to be heard.

Plenel making distinctions between Islam and fundamentalism the day after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and his reputedly complacent attitude towards islamists generally, contributed to a climate of reciprocal antipathy, even if it was confined to Parisian press circles. The accusations of rape against Ramadan have given Charlie a golden opportunity to strike a lasting blow against the director of Mediapart.

Plenel reacted by accusing Charlie of taking part in a broader campaign fought by, among others, ex-prime-minister Manuel Valls (a passionate supporter of Charlie’s ultra-secular position) and “a left that has lost its way, allied with an identitarian far-right and using any excuse to cultivate its obsession: war on muslims, on everything to do with Islam and muslims”. Plenel also compared Charlie’s cover with the infamous Affiche Rouge, where the nazi occupiers asked the French to denounce members of the resistance.

To these already serious words, Riss — Charlie’s editor-in-chief responded that, by claiming Charlie was “at war with muslims”, Plenel was condemning Charlie’s staff to another massacre. With his “impardonable words”, Riss continues, Plenel “inspires those who would finish the work of the Kouachi brothers [perpetrators of the 2015 attack]”. “If we’re not here tomorrow, if we’re dead, we hope there will still be people around with the courage to demand justice against those who killed us, and also against those who armed them”, continues Riss, who, like many of his colleagues, still lives under protection.

This verbal escalation has lead in recent days to a rather unsettling situation: a martyred magazine, paladin of a secularism without compromise, and now part of the French cultural patrimony, Charlie Hebdo represents the fight for freedom of expression all over the world, and for this reason it is unassailable. But Plenel, former militant trotskyist, isn’t one to shy away from a fight.

Returning from a trip to south-east Asia, Plenel attacked Valls primarily, accusing him of “looking for a scapegoat” to assist a “return to power along identitarian and authoritarian lines, using ‘the war on fundamentalism’ to dig himself out of political isolation”. According to Plenel, the ex-prime minister’s attack on Mediapart was aimed at “a journal that disturbs”, with its investigations and revelations of corruption among politicians, regardless of party affiliation. Plenel claims that, despite the complete lack of evidence for Mediapart’s complicity with Ramadan and fundamentalists, “it’s been impossible to stop the madness in the media”, “it’s an example of the French drift towards Trump’s alternative facts, a rejection of information in favour of opinion”. Plenel also observes, rightly, that “everything to do with Islam throws the media and politics into a panic”, at the expense of their reason.

Plenel eventually said he regretted his reaction and that of Mediapart, adding hat "there can be no war between Charlie Hebdo and Mediapart, between two independent newspapers who defend the freedom of debating, of expression, of disagreeing, who defend the freedom of saying and revealing whatever they want."

Secularists against the “Islamo-left”

The argument is emblematic of a fracture within the left in France and other European countries that began years ago. It centres on attitudes towards Islam, especially its more radical manifestations: divided between, on the one side, the libertarians, the paladins of secularism and freedom of expression at all costs, who fight against political Islam, calling it regressive and dangerous; and on the other side, supporters of a certain kind of relativism — or rather indulgence verging on paternalism — towards radical Islam, who accuse the French government of racism towards muslims. Charlie Hebdo would embody the first, Mediapart the second.

The argument is complicated even further by divergent interpretations of French secularism (neutrality with respect to religions, or repression of public religious demonstrations?) and multiculturalism. When arguments concerning the latter veer into the territory of identity, they usually resemble those of the more conservative right. It can be seen in discussions about the hijab in public places, the burka, or the burkini on beaches.

Seen by outsiders, the dispute may seem all the more surprising. In Germany, as Le Monde writes, “the very notion of secularism [laïcité] doesn’t exist”, and, with reference to the place of Islam in society, “the positions are more clearly split along classic left-right lines”. Angela Merkel herself has repeated many times that “Islam is part of Germany”, and the discourse of multiculturalism has been exchanged for one that focuses on integration. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, where Tariq Ramadan teaches Islamic studies at Oxford, “the discussion is a little shocking in the way it raises complex questions and asks us to choose a side”. In addition, “the French penchant for abstraction leads to an unfortunate schematisation”.

Faced with this split between the “lost left” and the “islamo-left”, many progressives exhaust themselves deciding which side to take — if that is even possible — and request that the tone be more civil for an issue which more than any other merits a calm debate, given what is at stake.

Certainly the French left, having just emerged from defeat at the presidential and legislative elections last Spring, and struggling to rebuild itself, has no need for further ruptures.

Updated on 4 December 2017, adding Edwy Plenel's latest statement.

Translated by Ciaran Lawless

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