The NPA and the veil
Mid-February, the New Anticapitalist Party in France held its first national conference since its founding conference two years ago. Two questions dominated the event and the regional conferences preceding it. Firstly, what alliances are possible or desirable with other parties to the Left of the Socialist Party and secondly whether or not Muslim women who wear a headscarf for religious reasons should be banned from being NPA candidates at elections. This article is to look at the second of these two questions. (1)
It was already very bad news that, in a country where islamophobia is very much on the rise, the only question debated at conference should be the question of having veiled NPA candidates for elections. In France today, mosques are tagged and attacked (occasionally with guns), discrimination against practising Muslims applying for jobs has been thoroughly documented, the Far right concentrates its fire on the Muslim threat, and the government has passed a law banning women who wear the niqab from walking in the streets. This wave of islamophobia has been met with staggering indifference at best from practically the entire Left. Many Left parties are worse than the NPA and supported the law against the niqab, a law which was the brainchild of a Communist party MP.
The law against the niqab
The NPA opposed the anti-niqab law in principle, but did nothing to act against it, because the issue divided the party very deeply, and because action would involve working with Muslim groups, which all but a small minority of the party do not want to do. (“Didn’t you know that religion was the opium of the people, comrade? It was Karl Marx who said that, you know… bla bla bla”)
Worse, the leader article in the NPA newspaper, which expressed our opposition to the anti-niqab law, and was written by an experienced woman comrade, made sure it insulted the women who wear the niqab, calling them “birds of death”!! The article concluded that the party should make sure it did not lend the slightest support to the campaign for a law against the niqab. Not the slightest support, but not the slightest active opposition either, as it turned out. Practically nothing in the way of leaflets, articles, demonstrations or meetings. Because the NPA is a very democratic party, the weekly paper did carry opinion columns by those who saw the Muslim veil as purely and simply a sign of submission to patriarchal values or a standard for the Jihad, and also staggeringly patient articles by those who felt islamophobia needed more active opposition.
The leadership was very much divided on the issue. On one side a small minority who wanted to actively fight against islamophobia, on the other a minority who insisted that islamophobia did not exist or should not be combated, and in the middle quite a lot who saw no way forward except to avoid the issue. In September, when a rally of a few dozen was organized by other groups in front of the Senate as they debated the anti-niqab law, the NPA leadership announced its support for the demonstration – six hours before it took place, in a classic tactic of planned passivity.
Who can be candidate?
Meanwhile, accidentally, the question of veiled candidates came up in the NPA. The NPA is very much a federal organization and the decision was made in one region to name fourth on their slate of candidates a young Muslim woman, Ilhem Moussaïd, who wore a headscarf. A dynamic young anticapitalist activist, well known in local campaigns, Ilhem was immediately reduced, in the media and even in sections of the party, to her headscarf, although the national NPA spokesman Olivier Besancenot defended her. The leader of the Left reformist Parti de Gauche denounced her candidacy, representatives of the Socialist Party and the Communist party criticized the choice, almost everybody pandering to islamophobia. One young Muslim woman, out of 400 candidates of the NPA in the regional elections, had become a threat to the French republic and everything it stood for! The media and other parties accused the NPA of deciding to stand a veiled candidate in order to court popularity with Muslim voters. The reality is that the decision was a local one which an embarrassed national leadership was forced to defend against a barrage of hostile criticism. Instead of openly defending the right of veiled Muslim women to participate fully in the party’s activities on an equal basis with other comrades, the leadership constantly fudged the issue. NPA spokespersons even insisted on the fact that Ilhem only wore a “light” veil!
Ironically, the media coverage has been very useful in that, on the Left, many thousands of people have been obliged to recognize that it is possible to defend workers’ struggles and women’s rights and also wear a Muslim headscarf, so perhaps the clash of civilizations stuff was all nonsense. However many thousands more remained entrenched in their views that covering your hair for religious reasons meant you were championing patriarchal domination, and any other consideration was secondary. The majority of activists in established feminist networks were aggressively anti-veil (with some impressive exceptions such as historic feminist writer Christine Delphy). In a period when attacks on women’s rights are common, a number of activists have seized on fighting the veil as the symbolic issue for defending women’s interests. Inside the NPA a minority campaigned against the idea of ever again allowing a veiled candidate to stand for the party.
This mistaken position absolutely did not come from the fact that the French Left is full of racists. You can easily find people who have been active against racism for decades who have a horrific position on the veil. It came from a mix of a century old tendency to equate being Left wing with mocking or hating all practising believers, and from the influence of stereotypes of Muslim culture in a post 9/11 world.
The conference debate
So a motion was put to regional conferences which proposed that women with headscarves could never again be NPA candidates. This was thoroughly discussed in pre-conference bulletins, and we found a surprisingly high level of support for treating headscarf wearers the same as everyone else (we had been so used to being in a small minority). Support for actively fighting islamophobia is something else though – more on that in a moment.
A second group of comrades suggested a compromise – there could be veiled candidates as long as a committee checked that they weren’t putting religion before the party programme. The debate was lively and not always completely honest – some not hesitating to quote three words out of a fifteen word poster to “prove” that Ilhem had been putting religion first. Other comrades showed a certain lack of revolutionary backbone, by complaining that we couldn’t have veiled candidates because it lost us votes. Some people left the NPA in protest over Ilhem’s candidacy. Ilhem and a group of friends eventually left themselves under the pressure and have set up a local campaigning organization.
When the results came in from the regional conferences, the proposal to ban headscarf wearers as candidates got 1297 votes, 1044 members refused the ban and 521 abstained. On the different compromise motions the situation was unclear, but it was pretty much fifty fifty to allow veiled candidates as long as the national committee checked on each case.
Surprisingly, at the national conference a slightly rewritten motion to ban headscarf-wearing candidates lost by two votes. That is to say, the national conference was somewhat less anti-veil than the membership, although the millions of Muslims making a revolution in Egypt may have swayed some of our delegates to allow veiled candidates.
At this point, the atmosphere at conference was extremely tense and noisy. A second motion from the anti-veil members proposing that a two-thirds majority on the national committee be necessary to approve such a candidacy was defeated, and a simple majority will be enough.
Conference proceedings were interrupted, and after the break one more motion was presented. Given that the regional conferences and national conference did not agree, it was proposed that a specific national delegate conference be organized on this issue in a few months’ time. This was partly a manoeuvre by anti-veil delegates, and partly a pragmatic move to enable conference proceedings to continue.
But the decision is probably a good thing. We who think that fighting islamophobia is crucial do not want to “win” by two votes at conference. We want to continue to explain, argue and convince comrades of the danger of islamophobia and the need to fight it actively (even if it can be wearing).
The motion about veiled candidates was very much an abstract one. After the pressure that Ilhem was subject to, and the fact that the NPA does not actively fight islamophobia, or even talk about it much, it is hard to imagine a practising Muslim woman even wanting to be an NPA candidate. But defeating the ban on headscarf-wearing candidates could be the first step towards getting the NPA to launch an active fight against islamophobia in society. At a time when the rest of the Left, and in particular the Left reformist “Parti de Gauche” are even more strongly influenced by islamophobia, the way the NPA attacks this question in coming years will be crucial.
The situation is a little like the situation thirty odd years ago with the Left and gay rights – it was a long struggle to get the Left, even the anticapitalist Left, to take gay rights seriously; many gave up first, but it was done in the end.
John Mullen February 2011
(1) To answer a common question, there is no connection between the debate on strategy and alliances and the question of the veil. In other words, all three major platforms within the NPA are divided on the subject of religion, feminism and secularism.
John Mullen is a member of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in the Paris region. His website is at http://www.johncmullen.net
For more background
The NPA in France and the fight against islamophobia (December 2010)
Translation of a contribution to the conference debate: “The NPA must actively fight islamophobia” (November 2010)
Anticapitalism, elections and the “Muslim headscarf” (2009)