Paris mayor vows to halt black feminist festival, then backtracks

Poster for Mwasi group and their first Festival NYANSAPO – a festival on African feminism (28 to 30 July 2017)

The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has announced that a “solution” has been found after she pledged yesterday to ban a black feminist festival set to take place in July.


It's an embarrassing turnaround for the mayor who appears to have leapt to the position of far-right groups instead of checking the facts of the situation.

The Nyansapo Fest, which is organised by the Mwasi Collective, is set to take place in northern Paris between 28 and 30 July.

In recent days, the festival organisers have been lambasted by certain social media users-- especially those from far-right and white nationalist circles-- due to the fact that certain sessions will only be open to black women. On Sunday, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo jumped into the discussion, tweeting that the festival was discriminatory and that she would take firm and immediate action to ban it.

However, only a day later, Hidalgo took to Twitter to announce that the festival would go ahead after all. This prompted ridicule on social media, with the number one hashtag in France stealing a line from her most recent tweet, “Following my firm intervention...”

"Festival Nyansapo: Following my firm intervention yesterday with organisers, a clear solution was established," Hidalgo tweeted. 

So what happened?

The Nyansapo festival has divided its events into four categories-- those open exclusively to black women (which account for 80% of activities), those open to both black women and black men, those open to women of colour and those open to everyone. The majority of events are reserved for black female participants.

The organisers say it is important to restrict access to certain sessions so that black women can engage in open, honest conversations about their unique struggles, without judgement from others.

A controversy started by the far-right

The initial outcry about the festival-- and the language used to condemn it-- seems to have sprung from far-right social media users. One early person to tweet about it was a far-right nationalist and anti-immigrant blogger who uses the name François Desouche or Fdesouche (a play on the controversial expression “français de souche”, which refers to French people who are not from an immigrant background).

"A festival with spaces forbidden to whites (the room belongs to the Paris City Hall)," the tweet reads. 

On Friday, an organisation known as LICRA, an acronym for the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (In French, the Ligue internationale contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme) tweeted a condemnation of the festival.

“A festival ‘forbidden to whites’: Rosa Parks must be turning over in her grave. The anti-racism struggle has become an alibi for a rising nationalist identity.”

Despite the quotation marks used, none of the promotional materials released by the festival organisers actually include this phrase “forbidden to white people”. In reality, this phrase was employed to describe the festival by French far-right political party, the National Front. Wallerand de Saint-Just, the party treasurer, released a statement on Friday morning, saying Hidalgo needed to “explain herself immediately” about how an event “highlighting an openly racialised and anti-Republican conception of society” was being held in municipal spaces.

Mayor Hidalgo a member of the Socialist party, responded in a tweet on Sunday (copying the formulation “forbidden to white people” used by the National Front).

“I firmly condemn the organisation in Paris of this event ‘forbidden to white people’,” Hildago tweeted.

In later tweets, she added that she would “demand a ban of the festival” and that she would “bring it to the attention of the police.” She also said she would consider “suing the organisers of this festival for discrimination”.

This quick condemnation of an exclusive event for a minority group is reflective of the ongoing grappling amongst the French over national identity. Many French do not believe that multiple cultures can co-exist comfortably, believing instead that French traditional culture should dominate over “communitarianism,” a pejorative term describing these alternate identities. The growth of these divergent identities is seen as a national crisis and politicians have been quick to respond to anything that could be perceived as such.

After Hidalgo's tweets, extremist blogger Fdesouche thanked Hidalgo and LICRA for picking up the story.

"Merci to Anne Hidalgo and the LICRA to have shared the revelations of Fdesouche and to react #antiracism", FDesouche tweeted. 

In a joint statement through La Generale (the venue), the Mwasi Collective said it had been "the target of a campaign of disinformation and fake news".

But wait a second… Hidalgo can’t actually ban it!

However, there was a hitch: only the sessions open to all participants were going to be held in a space owned by the city (La Générale Nord-Est, which the city rents to an association).

The festival sessions with restricted participation were to take place in a private location, which means that the City of Paris would have had no jurisdiction over who could and couldn’t attend.

FRANCE 24 contacted Paris City Hall early Monday afternoon for a comment about this snafu in Hidalgo’s so-called firm plans for a ban. The communications team said that they could not respond to FRANCE 24’s questions by the end of the day, despite the impending publication of this article.

However, later in the afternoon, Hidalgo tweeted that she had found a “solution” to the problem… that the restricted entry sessions would be held in a private location, the open-to-all events in a municipal building. Her so-called solution, it seems, was the plan all along.

"The festival organised in a public space will be open to everyone. Workshops with restricted participation will be held on a strictly private basis," Hidalgo tweeted. 

People were quick to make fun of her by stating facts coupled with the hashtag #aftermyfirmintervention.

"After my firm intervention, fire burns and water makes things wet," this Twitter user wrote.

“A space for us”

The Mwasi Collective told FRANCE 24 that the City Hall’s position was hypocritical from the beginning:

“If you [FRANCE 24] could ask Madame Hidalgo why she wants to ban our festival when she finances and participates in the feminist, lesbian film festival, Cineffable, which is only open to women, that would be really cool.”

For their part, the festival organisers-- the Mwasi Collective-- remain dedicated to the importance of gatherings for just black women.

“In Mwasi, there is no hierarchy of races, we simply demand the right to have a space for us, where we can feel safe and where it is possible to spend our time on our struggle instead of spending it on pedagogy (responding, for example, to many questions about our choice to restrict access of the existence or non-existence of women oppressing men or people of color oppressing white people),” the collective writes on its website (in French).

“It is intellectually dishonest to point your finger at the communitarianism of oppressed groups whose principal goal is to fight oppression, but to refrain from talking about the dominant communitarianism-- that of white people-- which allows them to conserve their dominant position in society,” the collective continues.

It isn’t the first time that the Mwasi Collective has become embroiled in this type of controversy. Last year, it organised a three-day “un-colonial” retreat, which was only open to people of colour. The retreat went ahead in a private location as planned.

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