During a trip to South-East Asia over the past two weeks, I watched from afar, stupefied, at the incredible snowballing controversy to which the Mediapart team, united against adversity, was confronted. When I left France on November 6th, I thought I had given the necessary clarifications in two television programmes broadcast the previous day; that of Mouloud Achour on Canal Plus (see here) and that of Apolline de Malherbe on BFM TV (see here).
The unbelievable suggestion that Mediapart could have had knowledge of accusations of sexual violence perpetrated by Tariq Ramadan and yet deliberately hid them from its readers had only just begun to circulate, based on nothing other than malevolence, if not calumny.
In a follow up to the interviews I gave, Mediapart’s editorial director François Bonnet wrote an article, The Tariq Ramadan sexual abuse affair: crusade of the imbeciles, detailing the political campaign that lay behind the rumour mongering. Isolated ever since his failed bid to become the Socialist Party’s candidate in this year’s French presidential elections, and now no longer belonging to any political movement since becoming an MP allied to (but not part of) Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party, elected to parliament with such a narrow majority that he now faces a legal challenge to the result before France’s Constitutional Council, former prime minister Manuel Valls has attempted to return to the political stage in force, adopting an authoritarian line centred on national identity in which the “war” on “Islamism – the latter assimilated to terrorism – is the only programme.
In this attempt to recover a political place, François Hollande’s former head of government decided to use Mediapart as his scapegoat and stooge, mobilizing for this all his partisan allies and all his networks of PR communicators. The first example of this was a hard-hitting cover-story interview with him published in the weekly supplement Le Figaro Magazine on October 6th, in which he denounced the “agents of Islam” – not terrorism or Islamism, but rather the religion that is Islam – among whom figured the publishing editor of Mediapart. Then, beginning his media campaign, he recurrently accused Mediapart of being an “intellectual accomplice” of Islamism, which for him signifies being an accomplice of terrorism.
That was the context in which the cover illustration of Charlie Hebdo magazine published on November 8th caricatured me as one of the “three wise monkeys” who “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”, along with the headline,“The Ramadan affair, Mediapart reveals: ‘We knew nothing’”. While Mediapart’s Société des Journalistes (journalists’ watchdog committee), on behalf of all our editorial team, and Mathieu Magnaudeix, now our US correspondent who last year wrote a five-part investigation (in French here) into Tariq Ramadan (the latter’s incensed reaction to the reports can be found here), together very clearly highlighted the inane nature of the accusations implying that we were the silent accomplices of sexual violence, the media frenzy over the issue continued.
It continued despite, also, a very factual clarification by François Bonnet of my supposed “relations” with Tariq Ramadan, and the very level-headed analysis published on Slate by a jurist who is not known for his support of Mediapart. It continued also notwithstanding the investigations by Mediapart journalist Marine Turchi into the accusations of rape and sexual assault levelled at Ramadan, the first of which was published on October 28th and the latest, which contains hitherto unpublished allegations against him, which can be found on Mediapart’s English-language pages here (and in French here).
This whole episode will no doubt later remain as an example of a French immersion in the “alternative facts” dear to Donald Trump, placing opinion before information. Because amid this whirlwind of controversy, what has been written, just like the facts of the matter, apparently have no importance. Because everything even remotely connected with Islam causes the media and politicians to lose their heads, there was no further place for reasoned argument. Clichés and prejudices abounded, as experienced by Mediapart journalists Fabrice Arfi and Jade Lindgaard when they stepped up to publicly explain our position in TV studio debates (see here, here and here). In contempt of the cause of women, largely forgotten and manipulated, “the Ramadan affair” became “the Mediapart affair”, and “the Plenel affair”. My principal perceived crime was to have published in 2014 a book called Pour les musulmans (published in English in 2016 as For the Muslims, Islamophobia in France), whose title alone was sufficient to make it intolerable for detractors who never took the time to read it, and even less to present an argument against the basic issues it raised.
When one is caught up in such a maelstrom, and in a balance of power that is fundamentally unequal, there is never an ideal riposte. The temptation is to remain silent, a distant position above the melee, but silence does not halt the pounding and can be misinterpreted as a supposed suspicious embarrassment. On the other hand, any retort is risky, when the communications machines, far from seeking a debate, hunt out any clumsiness or gaffe to turn a comment into a trap. That was how a truncated message I posted on Twitter in reaction to the events – my only response while travelling afar – was sufficient for the ogre among the media to feast at our expense for a good week, without ever taking into account the facts themselves. The aggressor has the right to commit every excess, while the aggressed party is allowed no right of weakness.
Beyond the fundamental issues, I did not appreciate the cartoon which portrayed me on the cover of Charlie Hebdo because I do not like caricatures which show a close-up of someone’s face in the style of posters of wanted criminals. To illustrate that by evoking a “Red Poster”, as I did spontaneously, was obviously not the cleverest thing to do. But in passing, one might note the paradoxical reverse situation which is that in the name of this freedom which Charlie Hebdo paid the highest price for, that of blood, the freedom to criticise a caricature or a satirical publication has become taboo.
As for the phrase that was lent to me referring to a “war on Muslims”, and which was the focus of the virulent editorial dated November 15th by Charlie Hebdo’s publishing director, it has been taken out of context; it was an extract from a brief radio interview in which I explicitly referred to the ideological line championed for quite some time now by Manuel Valls, who happily adopts a warlike tone.
It remains that it would have been no doubt preferable to have abstained on both counts so as not to give any pretext to adversaries who seek not to debate but to eradicate. The proof of this was given by Manuel Valls himself, when on November 15th he added his comments following the Charlie Hebdo editorial: “I want them to retreat, I want them to pay back, I want them to be removed from public debate,” he said of Mediapart, its publishing editor and team, speaking on RMC radio and BFM TV. Thus it was that, in a matter of just a few weeks, in a frenetic build-up that was beyond all understanding, we had moved from being a supposed agent of Islam to paving the way for Islamism, to being accomplices of a suspected rapist, and, latterly, potentially responsible for future terrorist attacks by making “a call for murder” and using “the same words as Daech” (another term for the so-called Islamic State group).
In this affair, in a contrary sense to an often used saying, everything that is excessive is significant. By taking hostage the martyrdom of Charlie Hebdo, the former prime minister used it against the liberty of the press, creating imaginary crimes of intellectual complicity which is worthy of McCarthyism, calling for the banning from the public space of a publication whose leaning displeases him. Must we remind him the constitutionality of the pluralism of the media, established in France since 1984, meaning that it is one of our fundamental rights.