Perhaps the best known sceptic about ‘Islamophobia’ in France is the prime minister, Manuel Valls, who has presided over the rightward shift of the Hollande government since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. On 2 March, under the heading ‘Let Us Support Kamel Daoud’, Valls wrote that the attacks on Daoud should
make us indignant … Daoud shows us the path to follow … a path that France is following, in making it known to all those who have abandoned thought, that a Muslim will never be by essence a terrorist, anymore than a refugee will be by essence a rapist … To abandon this writer to his fate would be to abandon ourselves.
Valls’s defence of Daoud has a noble ring, but his commitment to intellectual freedom is highly selective. In late January, a week before Daoud’s editorial appeared in Le Monde, Valls denounced Jean-Louis Bianco, the president of the Observatoire de la laïcité, for signing a letter calling for French unity against terrorism after the November attacks. Among the other, more than 80 signatories was the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, an anti-racist group Valls accused of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘One can’t sign appeals, including those that condemn terrorism, with organisations that I consider participants in a foul atmosphere,’ Valls said. In January, he declared at a conference organised by the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives en France – an umbrella organisation of Jewish groups that has been an unswerving ally of the Israeli government – that he would not permit a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators to hold a protest in Paris when the Bat Sheva dance company performed at the Paris Opera. French Jewish supporters of Israel encountered no such obstacles when they came out onto the streets in defence of the Gaza war in the summer of 2014. This double standard has done little to improve the dismal state of Muslim-Jewish relations in France.
Valls has also been behind the increasingly punitive security measures in France, such as the extension of the emergency law – he told an interviewer on the BBC that it should remain in effect indefinitely, or until the Islamic State is completely liquidated – and the ‘décheance de la nationalité’, an amendment to the Constitution that would strip binational French citizens implicated in terrorism of their nationality. Not only does the décheance create two categories of citizenship – something not seen in France since Vichy – but it implies that the blame for French jihadism, which is very much homegrown, a product of the banlieues and provincial towns, can be shifted onto countries that France once ruled on the other side of the Mediterranean. Valls, it seems, would like to exonerate France of responsibility for ‘its’ Muslims, while adopting the cause of North African critics of Islamism like Kamel Daoud, as if the Mediterranean separating France and Algeria were ‘like the Seine running through Paris’, in the words of an old colonial slogan.
Valls’s embrace is hardly fatal. Daoud is a brave and resilient man who writes for no one but himself. But it is a sobering reminder that that language is not simply ‘vacated property’. It is also ‘war booty’, as Yacine wrote, in a borderless clash over words, fantasies and interests – over the meanings of Islam, freedom and security. As Valls sang Daoud’s praises, I thought of the book that Ferhat Abbas, an Algerian nationalist leader, wrote about the betrayal of his country’s revolution: A Confiscated Independence. Once again, Kamel Daoud will have to fight for his.