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The Instagram row asking serious questions of France

French teenager Mila. Photo: Television Monte Carlo - Credit: Television Monte Carlo

JASON WALSH on l’affaire Mila… how a teenage girl prompted a frenzied national debate on French prejudices.

One minute she was a typical youth: 16 years old, just another teenager singing into a camera and chatting online. Now she’s known across France, loved and loathed in equal measure, facing death threats, living under police protection and rapidly being transformed into a symbol of the yawning chasm in the country’s political life.

Mila (due to French privacy law her surname has not been reported, even though she has since appeared on television) owes her fame to a livestream she made on Instagram last month. A chat with her followers turned into an unpleasant spat with one of them about dating preferences, and descended quickly and deeply into a harsh exchange of words in which she made insulting remarks about Islam.

As the video started to spread online and stir up controversy, Mila doubled down with a second clip in which she was quite explicit – and obscene – about her “hatred” of Islam. “I said what I think, you are not going to make me regret it. There are people who are going to get angry [but] clearly I don’t give a damn, I say what I want, what I think.”

What started as just another online drama really got going when Abdallah Zekri, the general delegate of the French Council for Muslim Faith (CFCM), told Sud Radio (South Radio) that the youth had “asked for it [verbal abuse]”.

“You reap what you sow,” he said, adding that he was nonetheless “against” the death threats she had started to receive. His colleague Mohammed Moussaoui, CFCM chairman, posted a tweet that “nothing justifies the death threats against a person, no matter how serious her comments were”. Zekri later withdrew his remarks.

Nonetheless, the teenager was transformed into public property and, worse still, a symbol of a riven France. She is now living under police protection and has changed schools.

Nevertheless, as the story escalated into a political storm that has consumed the nation, the teenaged Mila has remained at the centre of it. She appeared on the news debate programme Quotidien avec Yann Barthès (Daily, with Yann Barthès) on television channel TMC (Television Monte Carlo) to tell her side of the story of the original incident.

“A guy was hitting on me heavily during the live [stream],” said Mila, who is gay, “telling me ‘you’re beautiful, you’re hot, what age are you?’

“He told me that he didn’t particularly like rebeus [Arabs] or black girls. So I told him it was the same for me, that it was not particularly my style. And this boy, who was flirting with me at the start, started insulting me [saying] ‘dirty whore, dirty lesbian, dirty racist’ and so on. And he insulted me a lot in the name of Allah.”

She went on: “My life is clearly on break. Whether it’s my social life, on social networks, in my schooling […] I was not safe in my establishment [school],” she told Yann Barthès. “I could have been burned with acid, I could have been hit. I was threatened with being stripped naked in public, even being buried alive. I was not safe, I had to drop out of school.”

A police investigation is under way into the series of online death threats she received, while one into Mila herself, for “provoking hatred against a group of people on the grounds of their belonging to a particular race or religion”, was dismissed by the office of the public prosecutor.

Politicians on all sides have piled in to l’affaire Mila. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen lauded her in a Twitter post, saying: “This young girl is braver than the whole political class in power over the past 30 years.” Centre-left Ségolène Royal, a former and possible future presidential candidate, said that while she supported “total” freedom of speech “respect, manners and knowledge” were essential.

Justice minister Nicole Belloubet declared the death threats “unacceptable in a democracy”, but said Mila’s comments were “clearly an infringement on freedom of conscience”. Christian Jacob, president of the centre-right Republican party, described Belloubet’s stance as “scandalous”, and called on French president Emmanuel Macron to intervene.

The justice minister’s opinion is at the crux of the matter: in fact, Belloubet appears to be wrong. According to the letter of French law, it is permissible to criticise or insult a religion. The only prohibition is against insulting, defaming or discriminating against the followers of a religion.

Unintentionally, Mila has waded into a debate that has riven France for more than two decades: whether this freedom to blaspheme and offend will remain is the touch paper that has now been lit.

The ideology of laïcité is central to French life and politics. Unlike British secularism, where referring to belief is simply considered déclassé, or American secularism where politics and religion are, in theory at least, kept apart for the benefit of both, laïcité is militant. Where Anglophones might say church and state should be separate, the French say that while you can believe whatever you want, organised religion can, well, go and do one. As a result, Mila’s provocative remarks sound a lot worse to English speakers than to Francophones. Or, rather, such remarks used to. Opinion appears to be changing in France today.

In response to the row, the newspaper Charlie Hebdo – 12 of whose staff were murdered by Islamist terrorists in 2015 following the newspaper publishing cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad – commissioned a poll which found that support for prohibition of blasphemy is growing, particularly among young people. A full 50% of those polled supported the outlawing of blasphemous speech.

The newspaper responded with a double page spread of blasphemous cartoons, tracing the history of mocking religion including highlights such as the Marquis de Sade, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and writers Dante and Flaubert.

Unsurprisingly, the media has been in overdrive over l’affaire Mila. Right-wing polemicist Éric Zemmour wrote in national daily Le Figaro that, while her words were “closer to rapper’s belching than to Chateaubriand’s prose”, her misfortune was insightful for everyone else: “She did not insult France, the police or Catholicism, but Islam. We know the rest. From there, the reactions and the camps were defined and separated.” He went on to complain that young French Arabs engaged in street harassment, and that feminist politicians seemed less concerned about that, reigniting a debate that seemed to consume Paris in recent years.

Social media, meanwhile, gives the impression that the rest of the country has been similarly polarised, with competing Twitter hashtags #JeSuisMila and #JeNeSuisPasMila declaring support for and opposition to the teenager and everything for which she has come to stand.

As for Mila herself, her latest remarks are rather more conciliatory – but still clearly French. “I never wanted to target human beings. I wanted to blaspheme. I wanted to speak about a religion and say what I think,” she said.

She certainly did that. And, in doing, so, prompted a very 21st century debate, about issues that have troubled the French republic since its creation.

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