PARIS, France — When Mennel Ibtissem appeared on a television singing contest called “The Voice,” on Feb. 3, she instantly awed the judges. Aged 22, with striking light blue eyes, she performed her own rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in English and Arabic. It’s important to mention a few details up top: Mennel was born in Besançon, in eastern France. Her parents are Syrian, she is Muslim, and she appeared on the program—which airs on channel TF1—with her hair covered in a turban.
Some initially pointed out the harmonious symbolism of her performance—a French Muslim appearing on national television with her hair covered, singing a spiritual song written by a Jewish singer, in English and Arabic. But that was soon forgotten. Tweets praising her voice and “angelic beauty” gave way to an inevitable stream of comments about her turban, her presumed proximity to radical Islam, and, accordingly, indignation that TF1 would feature a candidate wearing a headscarf on one of its shows. Many of those comments came from the darkest corners of the Twittersphere, as they tend to, but prominent figures also quickly got involved.
Within hours, Mennel’s presence on “The Voice” became a national scandal. The far right delved into the annals of her social media postings and found that, on July 15, 2016—the day after a truck plowed through a crowded promenade in Nice, killing 86 people—the then-20-year-old Mennel had posted a common conspiracy theory about the attack: “It’s become a routine,” she wrote, “another attack every week. And to remain loyal, the ‘terrorist’ takes his identity papers with him. It’s true that when one prepares a dirty trick, one definitely wouldn’t forget to bring his papers.” In another post, she wrote, “The real terrorist is the French government.”
And so what some call the “Fachosphère”—the far right, but increasingly also the so-called Republican Left, which I discussed in-depth in my last newsletter—dug deeper into Mennel’s online past. They revealed that she had also shared posts by the controversial Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, who is currently under investigation on rape charges; along with material from Baraka City, a controversial Islamic charity organization; and Lallab, a Muslim, feminist, antiracist organization that faced a smear campaign last August at the hands of the same groups criticizing the singer’s presence on “The Voice.”
A few screenshots and hundreds of thousands of shares later, Mennel was the latest character in France’s ongoing conversation about Islam and national identity, churned through social media to become as hysterical as ever. The national radio station France Inter described the polemic as “another psychodrama of the crisis of laïcité in France”—referring to the policy of state secularism—and “an infuriating waste for all educators, professors, journalists, artists and politicians working patiently to fight Islamism and conspiracy theories.”
Prominent figures soon entered the debate with vicious comments about Mennel and the “normalization” of the headscarf. Ivan Rioufol, a columnist for the right-leaning daily Figaro who has 35,000 Twitter followers, said on TV news: “She wears the veil, she’s close to Tariq Ramadan. You don’t want to see that she’s an Islamist. A veil today, when it’s worn on television, is a political symbol, not a religious one. It’s a way to let everyone know that she doesn’t want to live with us.” Islam isn’t a religion, he added, but “a totalitarian ideology.”
Among the others, Jean Messiha, a special advisor to the far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen—who, despite losing the second round of the 2017 presidential election, managed to earn an unprecedented 11 million votes—slammed the “deafening silence about an Islamist’s presence on ‘The Voice.’” Louis Aliot, a deputy from Le Pen’s party, tweeted to his 55,000 followers, “as Iranian women free themselves of the veil, it’s increasingly being imposed in France in order to normalize it against our values.”
As calls mounted for Mennel to quit the show, indignation brewed as rapidly on the other side of the spectrum. Many jumped to her defense, describing the controversy as the latest example of France’s obsession with Islam and the headscarf. The hashtag #RaiseOurVoices quickly exploded, characterizing the attacks on Mennel as part of a larger attempt to erase Islam from the public sphere. And while her critics retorted that the singer had come under fire for her defense of conspiracy theories—not the fact that she is Muslim—her supporters argued that no one would have ever sifted through her social media posts had she not been named Mennel and hadn’t appeared on TV with her hair covered. No one knows what her competitors tweeted in 2016, after all.
And even if her conspiracy theories—not her religious beliefs or display of them—were the point of contention, many cited an in-depth report published in January by the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a think-tank, that shed light on the prevalence of conspiracy theories in France since the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016, most prominently among young people. Sociologist Sylvie Taussig, in an interview with the newspaper La Croix, said that Mennel “reproduced the narrative of the milieu in which she evolved, as well as the highly political statements of figures like Tariq Ramadan,” stressing the need to understand “what it’s about: not jihadism, but a widespread political culture among youth.”
Wading into the mess
By adhering to an evidently ridiculous interpretation of the Nice attack, did Mennel commit a less forgivable offense than the third of French people aged 18-24 who doubt whether Islamists were actually behind the attacks, as the Fondation Jean-Jaurès declared? Teachers I’ve interviewed have routinely offered anecdotes to bolster that conclusion, expressing alarm at the number of their students who have defended conspiracy theories about 9/11, for example. But then again, the Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard infamously did the same in 2008, and remains a national favorite.
By Monday, Feb. 5, Mennel herself waded into the mess. “Since yesterday, I’ve read a number of things that were taken out of context,” she wrote on her Facebook page, adding that her detractors misconstrued her posts to attribute beliefs to her that “reflect none of my thoughts.” She went on to specify that she was born in Besançon and loves France, “my country;” that “I obviously condemn terrorism in the firmest terms;” and that she advocates “a message of love, peace and tolerance.” That’s why, she added, she chose to sing “Hallelujah,” which “perfectly illustrates the message that I want to share as an artist.” Soon after, an association of victims of the Nice attack called TF1 responsible for Mennel’s comments, demanding the channel issue an official response.
When Mennel posted again two days later, her tone was resoundingly apologetic: “Those messages were an expression of a fear that I shared at the time with my friends on this social network. I regret them deeply,” she wrote, adding that some of her family members were on the promenade in Nice. “I was shocked, devastated, and didn’t understand how the attack couldn’t have been prevented by the authorities.” Two years later, she went on, she’s “matured,” and recognizes that her messages were thoughtless. “I apologize,” she concluded.
It’s not surprising that the far right would sensationalize the appearance of a girl wearing a turban as an example of a Muslim ‘invasion’ of France. That a segment of the left is egging them on is striking.
By the end of the week, Mennel had quit “The Voice,” explaining her decision in a video posted on her Facebook page. Her defenders lamented a victory for the likes of the far right and the Printemps Républicain, and pointed out that Amena Khan, a model for L’Oréal who wears a hijab, was pressured to quit the ad campaign earlier this year after the conservative website The Daily Caller identified tweets from 2014 in which she had criticized Israel.
It’s not surprising, although certainly upsetting, that members of the far right would sensationalize the token TV appearance of a Muslim girl wearing a turban as an example of a Muslim “invasion” of France. But that a segment of the left is willingly egging them on is striking. The Printemps Républicain, for its part, repeatedly insisted that it had nothing to do with the affair as tensions escalated. But many of its supporters engaged in nasty Twitter fights over the polemic, and, in defense of its non-involvement, the movement curiously published a communique mocking the “intersectional feminists”—the group, which routinely delegitimizes the notion of intersectionality in itself, put the term in quotation marks—“and other starlets of the Islamist hype who come out of the woods like snails when a storm hits.” Mennel’s “dramatized” resignation, the communique continued, would only make martyrs of “anti-Islamophobia” activists—again in quotation marks for the same reason.
There is no shortage of commentary about France’s strange obsession with Muslim women who wear headscarves, especially by American journalists and academics perplexed by an approach to diversity so drastically different than America’s. I’ve discussed some of it in the newsletters I’ve written for ICWA since beginning my research in September. These debates were particularly pronounced in the lead-up to the passage of the law banning ostensible religious signs in public schools—which applies to kippas, veils and large crucifixes, although it was written in reaction to the rising number of Muslim girls arriving at school with their hair covered. But a decade and a half later, it’s worth reflecting on how that law influenced the way religious symbols, and those associated with Islam in particular, are perceived today, especially by kids with immigrant backgrounds who grew up with the law on the books.
I discussed the Mennel controversy with two middle-school classrooms in the working-class suburb of Montreuil, with a significant population of students of Muslim background. Their teacher, Veronique Servat, a jovial woman in her mid-40s with short dark hair and a warm smile, prepared a series of slides to trace the affair’s evolution with her students. “How many of you know who this is?” she asked, and most raised their hands. Each student jotted down five words that immediately came to mind, and while “beautiful” and “singer” were the most common, “injustice,” “racism,” “discrimination,” “Islam” and “freedom of expression” were also often repeated.
As the class discussed the incident, some students said they didn’t necessarily find Mennel’s conspiracy-theory touting posts unreasonable, consistent with the findings of the Jean-Jaurès study. But the majority expressed frustration that the singer’s presumed religious beliefs had prompted so many to sift through her social media posts—and that her decision to leave the show let racists win, as they put it. Servat showed screenshots of tweets accusing Mennel of complicity with terrorism and labeling her an Islamist radical. In one, Celine Pina, an essayist close to the Printemps Républicain, warned of the singer’s “political objectives to normalize the veil and make it seem like an attribute of a Muslim women, making us forget that it’s the sign of adherence to an Islamist ideology,” hidden behind “a face and voice of an angel.” Many students sighed in response, rolled their eyes and chatted among themselves about “stupid amalgams” that stereotype Muslims.
It’s difficult to measure whether the sentiments that drove the Mennel controversy reflect public opinion more broadly. A 2013 study revealed that 74 percent of those polled considered Islam an “intolerant religion.” In another survey published earlier this month, 43 percent of respondents said they considered Islam “incompatible with French society.” What’s clear is that social media has given a platform to the most intolerant voices even if they don’t represent the majority. Traditional media, too, consistently feature provocative figures such as the right-wing columnist Eric Zemmour—an extreme but extremely present personality—who has said that Arabs hate France, that French Muslims must choose between their religion and their country, and that there’s no difference between Islam and Islamism.
Some have cited Zemmour—who was fined 5,000 euros in 2016 for inciting hatred against Muslims—as an example of society’s double standards about free expression, a recurrent theme that has emerged in my interviews with young Muslims. Rokhaya Diallo, 39, a journalist and anti-racism activist who was ousted from a government advisory council in December after she defended the existence of “institutional racism” in France, told me in a phone interview that, particularly since the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, there’s a view that the “Republic is sacred.” That defense of the state as untouchable was on full display in November, when an education union organized a conference to discuss “state racism.” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer threated to sue the union for defamation in response, and, after being applauded by the far right, received near unanimous political support for the move.
The amount of ink spilled about an arguably mindless television competition exemplifies the toxic state of identity politics in contemporary France.
“There’s this idea that people like me,” said Diallo, who is black and Muslim, “need to prove that we appreciate the Republic—we’re asked more than others to say ‘thank you’ for what France has given us. It’s a narrative that France demands of its minorities, and it makes it impossible to criticize the Republic, to question the discriminatory potential of abstract universalism.”
Is the drama around Mennel’s performance, and her eventual departure from the show, an example of the dynamic Diallo laments? The amount of ink spilled about an arguably mindless television competition exemplifies the toxic state of identity politics in contemporary France—and the concrete implications of social media’s overexcited echo chambers.
It also reveals—as the author Leila Slimani pointed out in an interview on France Inter—the “invisibility” of Muslim women who wear the headscarf as portrayed in media and the public sphere more broadly. That is, perhaps, a lingering byproduct of laws such as the ban on religious symbols in schools.
A month earlier, Slimani went on, she had presented her most recent book, which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, to prominent journalists and bloggers in London. “Three of the journalists at the table were wearing the veil, including one from the Financial Times, and it didn’t seem to shock anyone, nobody had anything to say about it,” she told the host. “And I asked myself, Leila, how many times in France have you spoken to a journalist wearing a veil? Never. How many times have you turned on the television and seen a woman with a veil, who wasn’t there because she was a veiled woman, who was just there, as a French woman? Never.”
The host cut her off—“Mennel.” Slimani agreed: “Right, Mennel. And that was the first time.”