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Advice on cheap meals cooks up a racism storm on French Twitter

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John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years.

CALVADOS, France — A second COVID-19 wave threatens … The French economy will shrink by 9 percent this year … And a furious debate has exploded on Twitter about a student who advised young people how to make cheap, stove-top pizza and inexpensive apple crumble.

The student’s name was Imane Boun. Her cookery lesson appeared on the BFM TV website on Friday, September 11 — in other words, 9/11. She was wearing a Muslim headscarf.

No one took much notice at first except other students and a celebrated right-wing journalist, Judith Waintraub. She retweeted the cookery lesson and an image of Boun, wearing her long, flowing, mustard-coloured hijab.

Waintraub added a brief comment: “11 Septembre.”

Twitter exploded, divided between those who accused Waintraub of outrageously linking headscarves with terrorism and those who accused Boun, and BFM TV, of proselytizing for headscarves and for radical Islam.

The Muslim headscarf has come to be seen as part of a deliberate campaign to “Islamise” France.

An anonymous Twitter account, since closed, referred to Waintraub’s Jewishness and threatened to murder her “just as the two brothers did to Charlie (Hebdo).” This produced another avalanche of indignant comments, including tweets from far-right and right-wing politicians and one from the interior minister, Gérard Darmanin.

Darmanin, a recruit to Macronworld from the center-right, has been trying to establish a reputation as a tough guy and hard-liner. In his tweet, he distanced himself from Waintraub’s politics but “strongly condemned the death threats” against the journalist.

He made no comment on Waintraub’s decision to link a student wearing a headscarf with the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Another more junior government member, Nadia Hai, minister for urban affairs, did criticize Waintraub — and brought thousands of angry attacks onto her own head as well as some praise.

Meanwhile, Boun’s cookery site, once visited by 100,000 students a day, was inundated with insulting, racist comments but also many messages of support. She closed the site and issued a brief statement, ending with the words: “Your love and your gratitude protect me from their hatred.”

A far-right French magazine, Valeurs Actuelles, has since alleged that Boun is a radical, Islamist activist. Their supposed evidence is the fact that she once launched an appeal to buy prayer mats, headscarves and copies of the Quran for poor Muslim students.

What to say? Of all the problems facing France, a scarf-wearing young woman appearing on television is not obviously the most pressing or destructive.

The saga is yet another example of France’s extreme aversion to the hijab, or Muslim headscarf. This aversion is exemplified, and deepened, by the fact that the French media labels such scarves le voile or the veil — more sinister-sounding than the more neutral and more accurate foulard or headscarf.

Legally, nothing in French law prevents a Muslim woman from wearing a headscarf. They are banned from French state schools and from government offices, which are regarded as bastions of the secular state. Full-length, face-covering veils — such as the burqa — have been banned from French streets since 2011.

But the headscarf, though legal, is widely detested in France, both on the left and the right, among humanists and racists, among feminists and anti-feminists. Any apparent “advance of the headscarf” — such as the marketing last year of a hijab for joggers — provokes an explosion of anger that generates disbelief and mockery abroad.

Why such scarf psychosis?

It is explained in part by French history and the country’s sense of self-identity. Secularism (laicité) is France’s state religion; the cement that holds France together; the soil in which French democracy grows. All religions are allowed, none is favored.

A 1905 law that separated church and state was a truce in a long struggle for power between the Republic and the Catholic Church. It guarantees freedom of religion — and freedom from religion. Differing beliefs are fine but they must not divide France into “communities” by imposing sectarian rules.

A minority of French people hate seeing any Arab or Black faces in positive roles on TV.

No one much complains about people who wear Jewish kippahs or Catholic crucifixes or Sikh turbans. But the Muslim headscarf has come to be seen as part of a deliberate campaign to “Islamise” France or, at least, alienate the 5,000,000 or so French Muslims, many of whom are non-practicing, from the country’s secular core beliefs.

This is not a racial or a right-wing issue, left-wingers say. In some multiracial inner suburbs, women dare not go out in public without a scarf covering their head.

There is some truth to these arguments. They should not be dismissed out of hand. But they are, I believe, exaggerated and counter-productive — a trap for French secular democracy as much as a defense.

Many other countries respect religious freedom — and freedom from religion — without making a dogma out of secularism. France worships abstract principles which it frequently ignores. (How free from community-delineating barriers are the French Catholic haute-bourgeoisie?)

The scarf issue has therefore been manipulated easily by radicals on both sides.

The right and far right in France have imposed their own absolutist terms on the debate. To make a leap of insinuation, as Waintraub did, between the headscarf and terrorism is willful and insulting.

That the interior minister and most other politicians failed to point that out is disturbing. If it is legal to wear a headscarf, why should a young woman not wear one on television without being accused of being a terrorist?

A minority of French people hate seeing any Arab or Black faces in positive roles on TV. The widespread aversion to headscarves in France is emphatically not necessarily racist, but it is in danger of becoming a de facto ally of racist attitudes.

Equally, such a row is a Godsend to the promoters of radical Islam in France. Look, they say, despite the talk of égalité and fraternité, there is core racism and Islamophobia in France. A young, headscarf-wearing Muslim woman can’t offer apple crumble recipes online without being accused of being a terrorist. She can never be an individual, just someone wearing a headscarf.

The real communautarisme, or division of France into communities or tribes, is driven, they say, by the racism and islamophobia of the majority white population.

Attitudes are hardening on both sides of the argument. That is something that will favor the discourse of the far right in the presidential election in 2022.

President Emmanuel Macron knows this. He has promised new measures in the coming months to promote Republican values and discourage “separatism.” He prefers this word to communautarisme, the word most frequently used by the French right and part of the left.

French President Emmanuel Macron | François Mori/AFP via Getty Images

Communautarisme, Macron implies, is inevitable up to a point. Trying to impose a monolithic “Frenchness” on a complex, multiracial, modern country of 66 million people is absurd. What must be resisted are antagonistic barriers between different ethnic, religious or social communities — those erected by the majority population as well as those created by religious fundamentalists.

Good luck with that, Mr. President. He might start by reminding his new interior minister, Darmanin, that wearing headscarves is legal in France and that he should have defended Boun as well as Waintraub.

Darmanin’s model ought to be the liberal Rabbi Gabriel Farhi. He condemned in a tweet the “gratuitous hatred” hurled at the young woman and promised to use her crumble recipe during the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah this weekend.

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