What is the ‘Affaire Mila’ and what does it say about France and Islam?

Mila has been advised not to go back to her school. Illustration photo: AFP
If you've been following French news you might have heard of the 'Affaire Mila' - but what exactly happened and what does it say about France's sometimes troubled relationship with Islam?

Who is Mila?

Mila is a 16-year-old schoolgirl from the Grenoble area who has found herself at the centre of a row over the right of freedom of speech and Islamophobia in France, all stemming from a video she made on Instagram.

What happened?

It all started very innocuously, with Mila live-streaming a video on Instagram of herself doing her makeup.

Recounting what happened next on popular French chatshow Le Quotidien on Monday, Mila said: “A guy was hitting on me heavily during the live, telling me 'you're beautiful, you're hot, what age are you?”.

 

She duly informed those watching that she was a lesbian and that “blacks and Arabs” were not her type.

Cue a stream of insults and threats, followed by her now infamous response, spoken directly to camera.

“The Koran is a religion of hatred, there is only hatred in it. Islam is shit, your religion is shit,” she said, describing in lewd terms what she would do to “your god”.

READ ALSO Islamophobia in Paris and London – how it differs and why

What was the reaction?

Well the end part of the video, with her offensive comments about Islam, was widely shared on social media.

Some people supported her – the hashtag #jesuismila has been trending on Twitter – but others did not and she was subject to a massive barrage of abuse and death threats.

The situation became so bad that her regional education board advised her to stay at home for her own safety.

On Tuesday, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced that the teen, whose full name has been withheld by French media, and her family had been put under police protection.


France is periodically convulsed with rows over Muslim women's clothing. Photo: AFP

That's terrible, but why has one video by a teenager caused such a furore?

Well it's always hard to predict exactly why some things cause a social media storm, but in this case the subject matter is one that France has grappled with over the years.

The Mila affair comes just over five years after a group of French cartoonists from the Charlie Hebdo magazine which had poked fun at the Prophet Mohammed were gunned down by jihadists. 

About 8 percent of the population of France is Muslim – although many French people when asked to guess put the figure at about 30 percent. France does not record people's religion or ethnicity on its census data due to laïcité rules.

France's principle of laïcité – the strict separation of the state from any form of religion – means that blasphemy is not illegal.

The principles of secularism have also lead to laws that ban any form of religious clothing from all public buildings – including schools.

READ ALSO ANALYSIS Why do so many people in France have a visceral aversion to the Muslim headscarf?

Periodically there are clashes between secularism and the freedom to practice religion, which frequently seem to take the form of battles over Muslim women's clothing – whether its Muslim mums in headscarves accompanying school trips or women wearing the full body burkini swimsuit on the beach.

And perhaps this is why the Affaire Mila has seen politicians of all parties getting involved.


Socialist politician Ségolène Royal cautioned against making Mila a 'paragon of freedom of expression'. Photo: AFP

What have they said?

Whether she intended to or not, Mila has won the support of the far right. Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen tweeted: “This young girl is braver than the whole political class in power over the past 30 years.”

The Senate leader of the main opposition Republicains party, Bruno Retailleau, also issued a robust defence of Mila against “this political Islam which is trampling our values”.

But some on the left, like former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, appeared torn between the desire to defend the unfettered free speech for which the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists died and reprimand the teen for her foul-mouthed outburst.

While defending Mila's “total” freedom to criticise a religion, Royal said she should have shown more “respect, manners and knowledge” and should not be made into “a paragon of freedom of expression.”

Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet declared the death threats received by Mila were “unacceptable in a democracy” but added her remarks about Islam were “clearly an infringement on freedom of conscience”.

Belloubet's remarks caused an outcry from the opposition with the Republicans' leader in the lower house of parliament Damien Abad fuming: “It's called freedom of expression!”

“You reap what you sow”, a senior member of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), Abdallah Zekri, told French radio, arguing that the youngster had “asked for it” (the threats).

The president of the CFCM, Mohammed Moussaoui, however expressed unease at these comments declaring that “nothing justified death threats.”

So what does Mila say about the whole thing?

On Monday Mila said she apologised “a little bit” to those people who may have been “hurt” by her remarks, but insisted she had every right to speak out.

“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.


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