Anticapitalism, elections and the "muslim headscarf".

The NPA, an anticapitalist party in France, has included in its slate of candidates for the regional elections in the Vaucluse region, a young activist who wears a muslim headscarf for religious reasons. This local decision has caused an immense “debate” in the French media, in which islamophobic and racist prejudices have been loudly expressed. Fatma, an anticapitalist blogger close to the Australian organization “Socialist Alternative” asked me some questions about the “veiled candidate”.

Could you explain briefly what the New Anticapitalist Party is ?

The New Anticapitalist Party was formed a year ago. The trotskyist LCR organized the formation, but attracted quite a number of non-trotskyists – some anarchists, some radical ecologists or trade unionists. The party has managed to recruit a number of young adults over the last year, although there is quite a turnover. Although there is a national leadership, the local federations have a lot of independence – for example  in the forthcoming regional elections, some federations will be running joint slates with the Communist Party or the left reformist Left Party, while others have chosen to go it alone.

Why was Ilham chosen? Was it a deliberate attempt to put a hijabi woman? Or did she just put her self for nomination?

Ilham is a young activist involved in Palestine support campaigns and other local campaigns who joined the NPA some time ago. It has not been easy for practising muslims to join the party because there are a lot of comrades who believe it’s impossible to be a practising muslim and “really” opposed to oppression and capitalism.

This comes from the general islamophobic atmosphere in France (most French muslims come from families born in the ex-French colonies in North Africa). But it also comes from an old confusion on the Left in France where to be Left wing has often been considered the same thing as to be very anti-religious and even to hate believers. This rather unusual situation in France means that it is quite easy to find people who have been active against racism for many years (supporting undocumented immigrants etc), but who are totally islamophobic. Then of course there are the right wing racists who hate muslims because most of them are arabs, but realize that it’s no longer polite to say you hate arabs.

 One of the results of this is that when, in 2004, the government passed a law expelling school students who wore the hijab from state high schools,  only a few hundred activists in the whole country mobilized against it. All the Left parties either  supported the law (using feminist or secularist arguments) or were completely divided and paralyzed on the issue. This included the LCR.

 At the founding conference of the NPA a year ago, the word “islamophobia” did not even appear in any of the conference documents , it is such a divisive issue. And yet islamophobia is rampant in France – there have been attacks on mosques, and of course the right wing government, delighted at the paralysis of the Left, is now proposing a law which would ban the “full veil” (Niqab) in hospitals and on public transport.

 The NPA is opposed to this law, but its spokespeople often use arguments like “there are other ways to fight against the niqab” and so on. One article in the NPA’s own weekly paper, written by a feminist old-timer in the party ( and to my great shame) referred to women wearing the Niqab as “birds of death”.

 Ilham was nominated (in fourth position on the slate of candidates) after a fierce debate in the local federation. But none of them expected it to cause such waves. The minority in the federation, who voted against her candidacy, have nevertheless expressed their disgust at the ridiculous attacks on her.

What are the debates inside the party?

Probably a majority inside the party think it is wrong to have a candidate who wears the hijab. They use different arguments – they say it represents women’s oppression, or that it puts religion in the forefront where it doesn’t belong. The good news is that there is a significant minority who say it is right to have such a candidate. There will be a debate on the national committee and at the next conference. There is a small minority of NPA members who are “islamophobic and proud of it”, who passionately detest all religion and religious symbols, and never think to apply a materialist analysis to religion. There is a bigger group who think that all this is secondary and we should not make too much noise about it because it is divisive. And there is a small minority (including myself) who think that fighting islamophobia needs to be a priority .

Happily, the most well-known spokesperson of the NPA, Olivier Besancenot, has defended Ilham’s candidacy well and has spoke of his disgust at the islamophobic attitude of much of the media. This is a good step forward – NPA spokespeople never used to use the word “islamophobia” ever.  However, the NPA leadership have otherwise been very defensive on the issue– refusing to accept invitations to TV shows to defend Ilham etc. This is because they know that their own party is deeply divided.

Different  sections of the NPA have sent out press releases defending different positions – either full support to Ilham, or support for her right to stand but opposition to her wearing the headscarf.

What was the reception of Ilham's candidacy among different political groups and in the media?
The Socialist party leader, Martine Aubry, has said that she would never have accepted such a candidate. One of the main leaders of the Left Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon , has said such a candidacy was a “step backwards”. The Communist party leader has accused Besancenot of deliberately being provocative (in fact, the candidacy was absolutely not his idea – the NPA is democratic and federalist). A couple of smaller groups like the left ecologists “les Alternatifs” have been more vocal in defending Ilham’s candidacy  than have the leaders of the NPA.

Much of the media just repeats the worst prejudices about muslims, but some papers have been better than the Left.

The struggle to get the Left in France to oppose islamophobia will be very long, but this candidacy has been a big step forward. Ilham never expected her candidacy to become an international cause célèbre.

We are hoping that the NPA conference will take a better position thatn the last conference. Certainly there are a couple of dozen NPA militants who are very determined that things should move forward on this issue.

Will this encourage other young muslim women to get active in politics?

It’s hard to say – certainly the islamophobia is so frequent that I would hesitate myself to recommend my party to a practising muslim woman who wore the hijab . It could easily be too hard for her. But we will never give up the fight against islamophobia. I have a daughter and I refuse to let her think it’s normal to reject a group of ordinary working people because of their ways of explaining the world. It will be a difficult struggle. The economic crisis continues; unemployment is going through the roof, and the ruling class is delighted to find a perfect scapegoat in the form of muslims, knowing the Left doesn’t really care.

What was the reaction of the arab and muslim community?

Hard to say, really. There is a small minority of very anti-religious arabs on the Left in France (partly due to the experiences of the Left in North Africa with some fundamentalist groups).But a lot of arabs and muslims are very shocked at the reaction of PS and PG leaders. Some seem to think that since the NPA has defended Ilham, that our party is better on the question of  islamophobia than it really is.

Interview de John Mullen, NPA 47, février 2010

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