Farewell chivalrous knight of Islam

Malek Chebel

Photo by Benjamin Chelly

The wise and wonderful Algerian-born thinker, Malek Chebel – who argued valiantly for an enlightened Islam, himself a shining light in French intellectual life – has died.

We met the week after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and became friends. I shall miss him.
This is the interview of our first meeting:

An emotional shock often makes us look for some kind of echo, some proof in the world around us that everything has changed but the morning after last week’s terrorist attacks on their city, Parisians woke to pristine winter sunshine and a clear blue sky.

Crossing town to meet Malek Chebel, one of France’s most prominent Muslim intellectuals – a man who always meets fanaticism, wherever it hails from, with the same reassuringly sagacious smile – I thought of the tears in my daughter’s voice when she’d called me from work the day before. Her office is not far from Charlie Hebdo‘s and she said she could hear the sirens. “No one’s scared, though,” she told me. “People are crying at their desks.” That evening she left her own desk and went straight to the Place de la République, along with about 35,000 others, and called me from the vast square.

“It’s such a beautiful, poignant atmosphere. And it has nothing to do with patriotism or politics. It really gives you hope.” I didn’t ask her how many Muslims she thought might be out on that square, but that was what I was thinking as I spoke to her.

I met Malek Chebel in the “English Bar” of the Hotel Raphael in the 16th arrondissement – a quiet, oak-panelled room with crimson velvet upholstery and antique Persian rugs, designed to look like the French idea of an English gentleman’s club. Chebel was visibly delighted to be there. It was only 10 o’clock and he’d already given four interviews. “I’m usually called in at times like these to calm things down,” he said. “Out there it’s a Greek tragedy, everyone’s passions unleashed.”

Later that afternoon he’d been invited to a televised debate with the right-wing polemicist, Eric Zemmour, whose terrifyingly successful “misery essay”, Le Suicide Français (which has sold 400,000 in three months) argues that ever since de Gaulle, French identity has been irredeemably corroded by feminists, homosexuals and Arabs. That day in particular, I looked forward to seeing Chebel dismantle Zemmour’s “passions” with his usual skill and charm.

With his religious upbringing in Algeria, followed by his two French doctorates in social anthropology and psychology, Malek Chebel has passports into both worlds. He earned his reputation in Arab society by translating the Koran into French in an edition that won the approval of all the key Muslim clerics from the Maghreb to Indonesia. But he has also tackled the two subjects closest to French hearts: sex and psychoanalysis.

Chebel’s titles include The Arabic Kama Sutra, Arab Eroticism, and the just-published The Islamic Unconscious. Impressively, he has to date no fatwa on his head. “That’s because few Muslims have actually read the Koran. It’s a very, very difficult text. I gave 10 years of my life to studying it and that earned me people’s respect.”

Using his erudition to spread a message of liberation from what he calls the dangerous ideologies that have taken possession of his religion, Chebel regularly cites the learned and inclusive Islamic society that was established under the Abbasid caliphates of the Middle Ages as proof that Islam can be reformed.

I asked Chebel if he’d experienced much racism in his adopted land. He told me that when he’d first arrived in France from Algeria in the mid-1970s he’d gone to see the Alps with his girlfriend at the time. They had stopped in a remote village and an old woman, after circling him several times, had approached him and offered him some household bleach for his skin. “Something remains of that woman’s desire in many French people – the desire to wash us all whiter than white,” he said with a forgiving smile.

When I asked him whether he thought France was Islamophobic, his answer was coy and rueful: “I’m afraid there’s a subtle system of thought in place here, which lends itself to an Islamophobic atmosphere.” Chebel was talking about France’s obsession with la laïcité, which in English means “secularism” – as in the separation of church and state. This translation, however, doesn’t quite cover it. Today, the word in French carries with it a history of deep antagonism and mutual distrust between the worlds of political belief and religious faith. It’s a visceral hatred that was fuelled by the excesses of the Catholic church under the ancien régime, nurtured by the Revolution, reignited under the Third Empire and, even after the official separation of church and state in 1905, has flared up regularly ever since. “Unfortunately, la laïcité has become a dogma in this country which often masks a posture of intolerance.”

This intolerance is not only expressed towards Muslims. A Jewish friend of my daughter’s, who has recently begun practising her religion in defiance of the disapproval of her forcefully laïc parents, as well as nearly all her friends, told me that to be a practising anything in this country requires real strength of character.

That laïcité might be seen as a form of oppression would be deeply offensive to many French secularists who pride themselves on their egalitarian values. These are the people who supported the ban on French Muslim girls wearing their headscarves at school, and of course the law against wearing a burka in public. Their main argument in support of these measures (which many outside France perceive as an infringement of personal liberty) is somewhat paradoxical: young French Muslim women must be protected from patriarchal oppression (of which the headscarf is a symbol) by being told what they can or can’t wear in public.

In fact, as Chebel pointed out, France’s allergy to the Muslim headscarf may have more to do with France’s own patriarchal traditions, which make the idea of a woman choosing to cover up her charms distinctly unpalatable.

“Perhaps Islam’s function in the French collective unconscious is to mask its own regressive tendencies,” Chebel suggested. “The French patriarchy can hide behind Islam, which everyone thinks of as a patriarchal and misogynistic religion.” He said he was against headscarves in schools at first and supported the ban, but has since changed his mind. “When I realised that many Muslim girls wear the headscarf because it made them feel more comfortable, I could no longer oppose it.”

What’s not often discussed here is whether religious intolerance is just another form of racial discrimination. According to a study carried out by the French institute of national statistics in April 2014, a candidate with an Arabic-sounding name here is still considerably less likely to be called back for interview, even if he or she has better qualifications, than a rival with a European-sounding name.

When I mentioned the idea of positive action to counteract this kind of discrimination, Chebel expressed the view of the majority of French people: “Positive action signals an admission that, in a society of equal opportunity, the person you’re favouring is weaker. It’s a mark of disdain.”

Chebel’s argument echoes the prevailing egalitarianist orthodoxy – the same orthodoxy that supports France’s law against gathering data about ethnic minorities, even as a tool to combat discrimination. The argument is that the French are so attached to the ideal of equality before the law that they perceive any departure from that principle as a form of injustice.

Chebel’s caution towards his host culture is very occasionally replaced by a gentle mockery. When I brought up the horror that had spread across France when it was revealed that non-Muslim children had been given halal meat in their school cafeterias, he said, “The reason for the violence of that reaction was their unconscious belief that we were invading them from the inside. And we were using meat to do it, which of course is sacred here.”

As we settled into the conversation and Chebel realised, perhaps, that my prejudices might not be the ones against which he had armed himself so carefully, he began to lower his guard. He confessed that, wedded as he was to the idea of freedom of expression, he’d felt that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons had indeed been offensive. “There are millions of Muslims in this country who felt deeply insulted. Of course death should never be the consequence, but we must have more understanding.

“In today’s multicultural society, France’s secularist doctrine creates an unbearable tension and behind this dogmatic form of laïcité there often lies a fundamental lack of acceptance of other cultures. The trouble is,” he added. “France no longer just wants integration, it wants assimilation and that’s just not acceptable. I think the British model, which practices tolerance towards all minorities, is wonderful. But we’re still a long way from that.”

When it was time for him to face Zemmour, we walked together to the nearest Metro station. On the Place de L’Etoile, a young man recognised him, came up to us and made a heartfelt speech about his horror at the terrorist attacks: “I’m a Muslim but I’m well-integrated,” he began, his hand on his heart. He went on to say how the shootings had made him feel physically sick, how that wasn’t Islam, how grateful he was to France for welcoming him in (from Morocco), for giving him a job (he was a waiter in a nearby café), and for helping him to educate his children.

After Chebel and I had said goodbye, I remembered the young man’s words: I’m a Muslim but I’m well-integrated. I tried to imagine a British Muslim making that kind of statement today. I realised that it was something you might have expected to hear back in the 1960s from someone who’d just moved to Britain from Pakistan.

It’s true, I thought as I descended the steps into the Metro – for all France’s beautiful ideas and high moments of popular fervour, there is, in practice, a long way to go before its practising Muslims will feel at home.




Goodbye to all that.

Young Remainers

Nation of shopkeepers that we are, neither side of the referendum debate considered the immaterial losses that would be wrought on the next generation by Brexit.

My Dad, post-war Atlanticist and Empire nostalgic as he was, to my constant irritation, would talk about Europe as if it were a continent beyond the Channel to which he didn’t belong. “We’re part of Europe,” I’d tell him and he’d mumble, “Yes, yes.” But I always knew he was unconvinced. It wasn’t until last Friday that I understood how deeply entrenched this view of world geography still is in the UK. Waking that morning, I discovered that my father’s ethos, its nostalgia for the past, its discomfort with the present and its dread of the future, had won the day.

Even when, out of his five daughters, three were living in France and one in Spain, my Dad never accepted the idea that the UK might actually belong in Europe. He grew to admire from a bemused distance the miracle of his seven bilingual grandchildren, their mobility and their adaptability as they moved through European cities, studying and working as easily in French, English or Spanish, but he never embraced his country’s place in the EU, which irritated and bewildered him to the last.

I should have realised that the bitchy, lowbrow campaigns unfolding in the run-up to the EU referendum were already a sign that the conversation had been hijacked by those, on both sides of the argument, who did not really see Britannia as part of Europe, but clung to the delusion that she was superior to it. With hindsight, of course, we all now realise that both the Leave and Remain campaigns were too busy lying to each other – about immigration, the NHS, the cost to the economy of staying or going – to think of arguing for the value to future generations of belonging to, by which I mean being proud citizens of, not just a marketplace of 500 million customers but an extraordinarily rich continent.

My own children and their cousins understand the value of their pan-European heritage, so they’re bereft: “I’m so sad, Mum,” my daughter Ella texted on the day of the result. “I feel part of me has been rejected by this vote, so a part of me wants to cut myself off from my Englishness.” Her 24 year-old cousin, Bee – also raised in France by an English mother and French father – was “aghast.” She’d always seen xenophobia as a French malady, from which the UK, with its natural openness to globalization, had recovered. (It’s now clear, from the upsurge in racist attacks across the country that the referendum has also served to unleash Britain’s darkest forces.) This niece was in Brussels during the bombings and is, like my own children since the Paris attacks, more than ever bound to her European identity. Since Brexit she feels “no sense of kinship with a country that can abandon Europe.”

Stanley, my English, London-raised nephew, who grew up wanting the cultural fluidity that his cousins had, ended up reading French, Spanish and Arabic at Southhampton University. He has just graduated  speaking all three languages fluently and was considering his options. “I feel dismay, depression, anger, disappointment,” he told me. “This has made me want to leave England even more.”

Jamie, a 30 year-old English friend from Somerset, who’d just found a job working in an art foundation in Arles, said he feels “ashamed” by this vote. “I love the EU and have been extremely proud to be a part of it.” He blames Boris Johnson above all, recalling the author, Charles Bukowski’s words: ‘the world is full of intelligent people who are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.’

It’s one thing to deplore the selfishness of the affluent elderly, many of whom voted to leave the EU out of fear of modernity or nostalgia, or to regret the arrogance and moral vacuity of those sophistical, Spectator-reading  right-libertarians who voted Leave to be contrary, but it’s impossible not to the sympathise with the poor and disenfranchised who voted out of rage or despair and who, like their counterparts in France (many of whom vote for Marine Le Pen) not only don’t feel represented by their mainstream politicians but are utterly disgusted by them.

The English thrive on adversity and I’ve no doubt we’ll come through somehow, but it’s a tragedy to me in a world where so much of humanity’s cultural heritage is being wiped out by ISIS, that neither Cameron, nor Corbyn ever saw fit to give voice to the potential cultural, emotional and psychological costs to the next generation of Britons, and to the world as a whole, of the UK turning its back on its European neighbours. Or indeed to point out what the educated young already know: that in this digital age, this renewed fixation with national borders is a retrogressive fantasy.




When I first heard the news of Dominique Strauss Kahn’s arrest in New York I clapped my hand over my mouth in horror. The news was shocking in itself – attempted rape…unlawful imprisonment – but my alarm went deeper than the accusation itself. It felt like a kind of reckoning, a death knell to a certain idea of France. Suddenly, DSK, the Grand Seducteur, the infamous lover of women was revealed as nothing more than a dirty old man unable to control himself. In the process, the very French mythology surrounding sex – particularly of the extra-marital kind – as a private, elegant and decorous game, was exposed as a big lie serving, primarily, as a rampart for the patriarchy. How fitting it was that the nemesis (both of the man and the myth) should be played out in America, the home of the witch-hunt and the cradle of political correctness. And how predictable that so much of the reaction to this story has centred, on both sides of the Atlantic, upon a visceral clash between two world-views.

On the morning after DSK’s arrest, words like “Incredible”, “unbelievable” “Inconceivable” peppered the French headlines. America was universally outraged by the details of the case while in France Twitter was awash with conspiracy theories exonerating the politician. DSK’s socialist colleagues all leapt to his defence. Former prime minister, Laurent Fabius (“in shock”) spared a thought, not for the supposed victim, but for Strauss Kahn’s wife and family. Even his political opponents alluded to a possible set-up by Sarkozy’s entourage to undermine his candidacy for the presidential elections. Former minister for housing, Christine Boutin, in the manner of a true courtesan and guardian of the patriarchy said, “To me the whole business seems highly implausible! We know that he’s rather vigorous, if you know what I mean, but that he should get himself caught like that, seems unbelievable so I hope he’s just fallen into a trap.” The general state of shock in France, then, is not so much that the alleged crime should have taken place but that DSK allowed himself to get caught.

My friend, the journalist and writer, Michele Fitoussi, feels that what’s happening to DSK is being lived out as a national trauma. “We had all heard about him, some made jokes and some knew what he was capable of. For years during our Parisian dinners we’d sit around slyly alluding to DSK’s dubious behaviour with women. We made jokes about the fact that a sexily dressed woman shouldn’t be left alone with him. There were rumours that it went further than the occasional visit to Les Chandelles (Paris’ most elegant swinger’s club). There’s a climate of maximum tolerance towards our male politicians that we’re just waking up from. It feels like a real collective trauma.”

But will this trauma cause a change in behaviour? Not necessarily. French reaction – male and female, public and private – to what is widely seen as the ritual and unnecessary shaming of DSK, betrays the entrenchment of patriarchal values, still being disguised as Epicureanism or savoir vivre. Listen to Bernard Henri Levy’s priceless response on French national radio: “Do you think for one second that we would be friends if I thought that DSK was a compulsive rapist (love the use of the word compulsive here), a Neanderthal man, a guy who behaves towards the women he meets, like a sexual predator? All this is utterly grotesque.”

Significantly, BHL ends the interview by stating that not everyone is the same: “Everybody is not everybody! The President of the IMF, the man who was about to be a candidate for the presidency of the French Republic, handcuffed! It’s obvious that he’s not some commoner (quidam). This American justice is an outrageous hypocrisy (Tartufferie), something I already knew but which today is blindingly obvious to me.”

BHL, with his humanitarian posturing and his patrician lecturing, is the living embodiment of the endless struggle that lies at the heart of French culture, between the myth of Republican equality and the hierarchical values of the Ancien Regime.

Reconstructed Female seeks Unreconstructed male

Two female friends wrote to me recently, deploring the mutual bafflement that was coming between themselves and their boyfriends. One of them was French with an Englishman and the other, English with a Frenchman.

“It’s good to notice that even a British women has come across the problem of repressed English boys!” wrote La Francaise. For I had guessed at what she was going through, having experienced it myself: she was fed up with not feeling sufficiently desired and was appalled by the fact that he seemed to prefer a night out drinking with his friends than a night in bed with her.

The Englishwoman, of course, was suffering from the opposite. What would she not give for a night out with the girls? Her problem was not her man’s sexual repression, but his persistent tendency to sexualise everything. Beyond the first flush, his refusal to let her develop beyond the sex slave and their relationship beyond a parody of 9½ Weeks, was suffocating her. She felt, she said, like a character in a film he was directing: “It was as if he had the script in his head and I kept wandering from it and disappointing him.” In his keenness to fan the flames by acting out his idea of the love affair, he was actually snuffing out her desire for him.

For this is a reconstructed woman, he’s dealing with, who will resist submission and infantalisation, both by-products of what he sees as vital components of the sexy woman. She is used to contractual relations between men and women and the hard, brittle, intellectual tussle that they bring. And so she will call it a day, choosing the need for autonomy over the ‘ecstasy of submission’ (as Finkielkraut calls it).

My French friend, on the other hand, knows that she is not sacrificing her intrinsic autonomy by submitting to the rules of the Game of Love. As long as she is with Englishmen she will continue to miss the playful, erotically charged, wilfully mindless games-playing of L’amour a la francaise. Keep contractual relations out of the bedroom, says she, for therein lies the secret of erotic longevity. Play the game and preserve the mystere that Catholic societies have ever sworn by to keep the faith.

The Equality Myth

Here’s  the thing. France is the land of human rights. Not to mention Equality. It is therefore illegal here to gather data on the basis of a person’s race or ethnicity. How, then, without statistics to enable analysis, does she address the very real problem of discrimination in her society? This very sensible question has only recently been taken seriously here. Why? Because Sarkozy, in thrall to the Anglo-Saxon social model, has set up a new commission, headed by a businessman of Algerian origin called Yazid Sabeg, in order to measure and promote ‘diversity’. The English-speaking world is busy applauding on the sidelines while most French intellectuals on both left and right band together in fierce opposition. What are these guardians of the republican model afraid of?

Three things:

1) The Past: the last time the citizens of this nation were invited to provide information on the basis of their racial origins was under Vichy’s ruthlessly efficient anti-Semitic regime.

2) The Present: if France gives in to this initiative and starts openly gathering data on her ethnic minorities, she will have to face the reality of how truly elitist and non-egalitarian her society actually is. (There is basically no black middle class in this country.)

3) The Future: If France allows herself to debunk the myth of equality by acknowledging the day to day reality of her immigrant populations she will have to do something about it, maybe even start considering such terrifying proposals as affirmative action. Should this happen, it will only be a matter of time before her highly elitist National Education system and with it, all the vestiges of her aristocratic traditions that have survived so well since her revolution, crumble and die.

I’m not too worried, though. Sarkozy’s measures so far are only posturing. France has plenty of data about her immigrant communities. To get around the law she simply asks, Where were you born, where were your parents born, and your grandparents? She already has all the stats on her first, second and third immigrant generations. She simply doesn’t want to wash her dirty laundry in public. Is that too much to ask?

The Address of Shame

Former headquarters of the French arm of the Gestapo

Former headquarters of the French arm of the Gestapo. Known as 'La Carlingue' (cabin) the address also served as a brothel.

93 rue Lauriston, 75016, Paris, is an address known to most of France (at least those vaguely aware of her history) as the headquarters of the French Gestapo from 1941 – 1944. It is not, it would seem (however expensive the real estate in this particular part of Paris) an address that is desirable to its potential tenant, former Foreign Minister to Chirac, Monsieur Herve de Charette. The MP recently asked Claude Goasguen, the good mayor of the sixteenth arrondissement (by far the Nazi’s favourite quartier), to ask his council members if they could possibly change the address…From No. 93 to No. 91a, rue Lauriston!

“The past associated with the address was embarrassing to me,” the former minister has since explained, by way of justification. “Particularly since I’m responsible for a Franco-Arab* organisation. My request was well-intentioned: to get rid of the address of shame. I didn’t know I was going to trigger all this controversy.”

Obligingly, Mayor Goasguen (a fellow member of Sarkozy’s UMP party) put it to the vote. Significantly, 8 out of his 12 councillors abstained but no one dared to vote against his motion, which was quite simply absurd. Not revisionist, as some have claimed, not fascist, but plain mad.

The mayor, who has rather clumsily described his position on the subject as “neither for nor against”, has since dropped the matter. (The matter, though, has not dropped him.)

It all reminds me of the suggestion, made a few years ago, by the MP Gérard Charasse, that a law be passed to prohibit any assimilation of the Vichy regime with the town of Vichy (one of the key towns in his constituency). Article 4 of his law (which thankfully has never seen the light of day) states that “Shall be considered an imputation causing prejudice to the honour and reputation (of Vichy)…any designation tending to assimilate the name of the town or its inhabitants with treasonous behaviour, capitulation, or offense to republican values.”

When will this country ever recover enough from the trauma of the Occupation to stop wanting to forget it?

*President of the Franco-Arab Chamber of Commerce.

France: the badboy of the free market bites back

I love The Economist. It’s so smug and so uniform in its outlook, as though all the articles were written by that same, reassuringly ‘authoritative’ hand. This morning, though, on reading the piece about France’s infuriating proclivity towards statism, Back in the Driving Seat: The Return of Dirigisme,  I detected a touch of self-doubt.

A devotee, as you would expect, of Anglo-Saxon, free market capitalism, the author of the piece could not help but acknowledge that France’s bizarre economic model, with its record of shameless statism, conservative banking and lavish public spending, has left her far better equipped to deal with the financial crisis than her more observant partners in the global economy.

The French economy is used to high unemployment, which is currently pushing 8.3%. America, whose unemployment rate in February was 8.1%, is not. The social consequences of joblessness in France (where the poor have access to decent schools, health care and welfare) and in the United States, are not the same at all.

France is constantly being rapped on the knuckles for her high public spending. Two years ago, this accounted for 52% of her GDP, compared with 45% in Britain. I have long been puzzled by the argument that it is permissible to encourage massive personal borrowing (the average owed today by every adult in Britain, including mortgages, is £30,450) and be so censorious of state borrowing. Now, of course the French budget deficit (running this year at 5.5% of her GDP) is well below that of Britain (7.2%) and America (12%).

Now, all you Anglo Saxon capitalists out there, could we please see a little more humility?