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France's #Metoo sparks new secularism row over Charlie Hebdo cover

media Manuel Valls in the National Assembly REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Rape accusations against an Islamic intellectual following the Harvey Weinstein revelations have led to a bitter war of words over secularism and Islam on the French left, the opposing sides swapping accusations of "Islamophobia" and "Islamoleftism".

In France, as in the many other countries, the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood moghul Harvey Weinstein have led to thousands of women coming forward with accounts of sexual abuse and harassment.

But coverage of the French version of #Metoo, Balancetonporc (Grass up your pig), has been pushed out of the headlines by a row between two media outlets - Charlie Hebdo, the satirical weekly attacked by Islamists Saïd and Chérif Kouachi at the cost 12 lives in 2015, and Mediapart, an online investigative site headed by Edwy Plenel, the left-wing former editor of Le Monde newspaper.

Ramadan accused of rape

The Weinstein affair led to two followers of Swiss university professor and Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan accusing him of rape.

Tariq Ramadan SIA KAMBOU/AFP

A number of other women have since come forward with sexual harassment accusations against Ramadan, who is a particularly controversial figure in France, where many see him as a threat to French secularism pushing French Muslims towards Islamism.

Charlie Hebdo, which is among his most strident critics, responded to the accusations with a front page depicting Ramadan with an enormous erection, declaring "I am the sixth pillar of Islam".

According to the paper's staff, the cartoon sparked an increase in the abusive messages and death threats they have regularly received since publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005.

From Ramadan to Mediapart

But lampooning Ramadan soon turned into lambasting left-wingers perceived to have been indulgent towards him, in particular Plenel.

The founder of Mediapart has debated with Ramadan on two occasions and once described him as a "respectable intellectual" opposed to terrorism, while differentiating himself from the Muslim thinker's conservative outlook.

Asked by a radio journalist for his reaction to the threats to Charlie Hebdo, former prime minister Manuel Valls laid into Plenel and other journalists and intellectuals whom he accused of complicity with Ramadan.

Mediapart hit back with an article accusing Valls and "part of the Socialist left in ruins" of making common cause with the far right and launching a witch-hunt.

Where was Valls when Mediapart published sexual abuse revelations against Green MP Denis Baupin in 2016 or against centrist MP Jean Lasalle this year, journalist François Bonnet wanted to know, and why had his response to rape allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn been to denounce photos of the IMF chief and French Socialist Party member in handcuffs as being "of an insufferable cruelty"?

Edwy Plenel tweets Charlie Hebdo's front page attacking him, comparing it to a pro-Nazi poster denouncing immigrant resistance fighters during World War II.

As Bonnet was penning his article, Charlie Hebdo was preparing a new front page, this time of Edwy Plenel, his distinctive moustache preventing him from seeing, hearing or speaking evil, with the headline "We didn't know".

That prompted Mediapart journalists to collectively slam the cartoon as "false and slanderous", while conceding Charlie Hebdo's right to publish it, and ask how they could have reported the allegations against Ramadan before they had been made public.

"It would be tragic for the women and men who are victims of sexual assault if the freeing of expression of what they have endured becomes a simple 'Ramadan affair'," the statement said.

War and incitement to murder

Plenel, too, took up the cudgels with a statement that added another twist to the controversy.

The front page was part of a "more general campaign", he said on Franceinfo TV.

Valls and a "left that has lost its way" are allied to the right and the extreme right and "find any pretext, any calumny, to return to their obsession: war on Muslims, the demonisation of everything concerning Islam and Muslims".

Charlie Hebdo editor Laurent Sourisseau, known as Riss AFP

Those words were an incitement to murder, according to Charlie Hebdo's editor Riss, who was wounded during the 2015 attack.

"For in saying them Plenel condemns Charlie Hebdo to death a second time," he wrote in an editorial. "That phrase, which designates Charlie Hebdo as a supposed assailant of Muslims, bestows honour on anyone who may want to finish the work of the Kouachi brothers."

In a tweet Valls hailed the article as "magnificent" and returned to the airwaves to demand that Plenel and his cothinkers be "squeezed out of the public debate"

He didn't want a ban on their opinions, he insisted. "But they should lose the fight, the battle of ideas. We are fighting for the republic and I am fighting for the Muslims of France because it is we who are protecting them."

He also broadened the attack by slamming hard-left France Unbowed MP Danièle Obono for being "violently anti-republican" and Pascal Boniface, who has been attacked as a "useful idiot of Islamism" on social media, saying he has asked the foreign affairs and armed forces ministries to examine the finance they provide to the Iris thinktank that he heads.

Dismay on the left

Earlier in the week Valls had received a standing ovation from much of the French parliament when Prime Minister Edouard Philippe praised his "enormous clarity and great resolution" in fighting anti-Semitism but members of the ruling majority were more circumspect about his latest statements.

MPs told the AFP news agency that he had been "over the top" and "too aggressive" and the head of Emmanuel Macron's Republic on the Move party in the Senate told journalists that there are "real differences" between the president and Valls on the question of secularism.

The row has been greeted with dismay by much of the media and the French left.

It is an "appalling explosion of hatred", according to an editorial in Le Monde. How can both sides not see that they "are emptying all meaning from secularism, whose aim it to enable those who believe and those who do not believe to live together under the republic's laws", it asked.

Left-wing journalist Guillaume Meurice mocked both sides for being childish and appealed to them to "return to your common struggle for people for a life a bit less disgusting and the defence of the weakest against stupid, rigged competition".

Even the often truculent France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon appealed for calm.

"The country is going crazy with all this," he told a TV channel. "Secularism is just the separation of church and state."

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