The World according to Caroline Fourest
On 22 October, the French journalist and LGBT activist Caroline Fourest was convicted of slandering a young woman called Rabia Bentot during her weekly slot on France Culture, a public radio station. She has said she will appeal.
Bentot was 17 when she was assaulted on 20 May 2013 by two men in Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris. Interviewed with her father on Oumma, a website for the French Muslim community, she explained that two shaven-headed men had insulted her (calling her a ‘whore’ and a ‘dirty Muslim’, telling her to ‘go back to your country’), grabbed her headscarf and hit her repeatedly until a passer-by intervened, allowing her to run away. When she went to the police, she said, they let her file a complaint but didn't take her seriously, refused to acknowledge that the assault had a racist dimension and asked her to keep it quiet for fear of causing uproar in the Muslim community. Her father said in the Oumma interview that it was only after he came back from a trip abroad and contacted the CRI and other anti-Islamophobia organisations that the family got any support.
The following month, another young woman wearing a headscarf was assaulted in Argenteuil. She was pregnant and miscarried a few days later. Unlike Bentot, Leïla O. refused to talk to the press.
Fourest began her career in the late 1990s with the magazine ProChoix, which she and her partner Fiammetta Venner set up to defend a woman's right to control her own body. They wrote a book that named the Front National's donors and another that named mayors opposed to civil partnerships for same-sex couples. She was considered part of the libertarian left.
Then in 2003, Fourest and Venner published Crossfire: Secularism Put to the Test by Jewish, Christian and Muslim Fundamentalism, in which they concluded that ‘next to Muslim fundamentalism, Jewish and Christian fundamentalisms appear like marginal phenomena... of no consequence’. In 2004, Fourest supported the law forbidding religious symbols in state schools. In 2006, she published The Obscurantist Temptation, in which she accused a section of the French left of having joined forces with Islamists. She started appearing on TV and was given a weekly column in Le Monde (until 2012). In 2008 Libération profiled her as a crusader for secularism. She speaks on France Culture every Tuesday.
On her radio show (Le Monde selon Caroline Fourest) in June 2013, Fourest alleged that Bentot ‘didn't file a complaint straight away’, that her father ‘keeps interrupting his daughter’ in their interview with Oumma and that the police ‘don't exclude a family feud’ as the motive behind the assault. The court found last month that none of these allegations was grounded in fact. Hosni Maati, Bentot’s solicitor, told me that the idea that her family could have been behind the assault was especially unbearable.
In Fourest's broadcast, the women were presented not as victims so much as potential suspects. Fourest made much of the fact that Leïla initially spoke of a blow directed at her belly, while her statement to the police refers to a blow directed at her hip. By pointing to alleged inconsistencies in the young woman's statement, Fourest – evidently forgetting her experience as a campaigner fighting violence against women – borrowed a tactic used frequently by rapists to protest their innocence.
She went on to attack the organisations that supported Bentot and Leïla, which have all campaigned against Islamophobia, including the CRI, the CFPE (Feminist Collective for Equality) and Indigènes de la République. ‘These organisations, which fight for the headscarf, while being close to the Muslim Brothers and their preachers’ are well-known for their desire to ‘create a rivalry between different types of racism’, Fourest said. ‘They think we denounce racism against Jews too much and racism against Muslims not enough, maybe because one type of racism bothers them less than the other.’
Saïd Bouamama, one of the founders of Indigènes de la Républiques, told me that ‘the fact that Fourest is still able to appear in the media while claiming such things reveals the level of confusion present in the French media since 2004, when being free to dress as one liked came to be seen as an equivalent to religious proselytism.’ Bouamama says that he hasn't fought for the headscarf but defends women's right to dress as they like, and that he isn’t close to the Muslim Brothers (‘they accuse me of being a supporter of secularism’).
At the end of her broadcast, Fourest concluded that ‘women wearing a headscarf are not attacked because they are women but because they are Muslim... So it doesn’t demand a specifically feminine or feminist solidarity.’ This is asking us to chose between feminism and anti-racism. But as Bouamama puts it, ‘there isn't one feminism but several feminisms, with women speaking from the different positions of domination they are experiencing.’
Fourest's views and journalistic methods have got her in trouble before. In 2012, she was given a Y'a Bon Award (a satirical prize for racist discourse) for her attack on ‘associations that ask for gyms where they can organise basketball tournaments for headscarf-wearing women only, and also raise funds for Hamas’. Two months ago, the CSA, which regulates French radio and TV, criticised her for making unverified claims about atrocities committed by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine (‘separatist paramilitaries,’ she said, ‘had just cut out their eyeballs with a knife’).
Fourest remains very visible and audible. Her conviction for defamation wasn’t covered by Le Monde, Libération or Le Figaro. She was recently made an associate of Britain’s National Secular Society. In Pourquoi les gays sont passés à droite?, the writer and gay activist Didier Lestrade asked the right question about Fourest: ‘How does a lesbian, well aware of the simplistic coverage and misrepresentation of her own minority in the media, end up reproducing exactly the same stigmatising treatment of Muslims?’