French Muslim rapper cancels shows at Bataclan amid far-right protests

Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP | The Bataclan concert hall in Paris on November 13, 2017

The Bataclan concert hall in Paris – where 90 people were killed in the Nov. 13, 2015 terror attacks – is at the centre of a debate over freedom of expression after French rapper Médine was forced to cancel two shows amid protests from the far right.


The Bataclan announced the decision in a statement on Friday, following a months-long campaign by far-right groups, who argued that it would be disrespectful to the victims’ families to allow Médine, a Muslim known for his at-times provocative lyrics, to perform there.

“Médine and the Bataclan have decided, in a conciliatory spirit, that the concerts initially planned on October 19 and 20, 2018, will be rescheduled at another Parisian venue,” the statement said.

In a message to his fans, the rapper justified the decision as necessary to “ensure the safety of my audience”, saying it had been reached “out of respect” for the victims’ families. The same day, the president of the far-right Midi League, Roger Roudier, confirmed that a dozen buses had been reserved to shuttle protesters to the venue.

The show would have Médine’s first at the Bataclan, a place where he has dreamed of performing since childhood. Among the tracks on his latest album, “Storytellers”, is a haunting ode to the concert hall, in which he raps: “I have flashbacks to when I was just a kid/All I wanted to do, was play the Bataclan.”

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party (formerly the National Front), celebrated the concerts’ cancellation, tweeting on Friday that it was “a victory for all victims of Islamic terrorism”.

“This provocation had no place in this hall, given its painful history,” she added.

Yet to some, the decision to cancel Médine’s performance comes as an affront to freedom of expression and is yet another example of the far right’s reputation as fundamentally anti-Islam.

“The fact that the far right has called for these concerts to be banned means that some connection has been made between Médine and those who committed the attacks. It’s a tried and true technique used by the far right, conflating Muslims with terrorists,” Pascal Boniface, director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) and a close friend of the rapper, told FRANCE 24. “It’s a regrettable decision that is due to threats of violence.”

‘Fake news’

Médine first announced that he would be performing at the Bataclan in April, shortly after the release of “Storytellers”. The concert quickly sold out, prompting the venue to add a second date.

By early June, however, a number of tweets featuring controversial lyrics from Médine’s past songs began appearing online.

The two most popular posts included a line from his 2015 hit “Don’t Laïk”, which has been criticised as an attack on France’s secularist values, and the cover of his 2005 album “Jihad”.

The tweets were accompanied by the hashtag #NoMédineAtTheBataclan (or #PasDeMédineAuBataclan). A National Rally member also launched a petition calling for the shows to be cancelled, saying that “the artist is known for his violent lyrics in the name of Islam”.

As the online campaign gained traction, Le Pen seized upon the issue, deriding the concert as “an insult to the memory of our dead”.

Laurent Wauquiez, president of the conservative Les Républicains party, echoed her comments, stating that it was “a sacrilege for the victims and a dishonour for France”. The controversy soon mounted to the highest echelons of government, with French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb weighing in. “In the face of some [of Médine’s] shocking lyrics, we can only condemn the content,” he said.

Yet the rapper is well aware of the impact some of his earlier work has had. During a seminar at the prestigious École normale supérieure in Paris in March 2017, he reflected on the lyrics of “Don’t Laïk”.

“Provocation is only useful when it sparks debate, not when it creates an iron curtain. With ‘Don’t Laïk’, it was unlistenable, and the music video only exacerbated the polemic. I felt like I went way too far,” he said.

Meanwhile, those close to Médine have argued that the outrage over his album “Jihad” is unmerited. “It’s a scandalous misrepresentation, it’s fake news,” said Boniface, who has co-authored a book with the rapper.

“They dug up a very old album to create a link with terrorism, while Médine has always viewed jihad as a personal battle,” he explained, pointing to the album’s subtitle: “The greatest struggle is against yourself”.

‘Freedom of expression’

Since the start of the controversy, Médine has been repeatedly forced to defend himself.

“Before all else, and to avoid any ambiguity, I renew my condemnation of the abject attacks of November 13, 2015, and all other terrorist attacks, and assure, with the greatest sincerity, my deep support for all the victims’ families,” he wrote in June.

Médine took the opportunity, however, to sound the alarm over what he viewed as a threat against freedom of expression.

“The question we are now facing is the following one: Are we going to allow the far right to dictate our concert halls’ programmes and, more generally, limit our freedom of expression?” he asked.

Meanwhile, the victims’ families have reacted to the controversy in different ways. The non-profit Life for Paris issued a statement declaring that the Bataclan was “completely free to choose its own lineup”, adding that it was opposed to “anyone using the memory of the attack’s victims for political ends, as has been done in this case”.

The president of the group 13onze15 Fraternité et Vérité, Philippe Duperron, also deplored the politicisation of the issue, but added he felt that the Bataclan had committed an error in booking Médine.

The organisation later published a statement applauding the decision to move the performance to a different venue, saying that it was “a solution conforming with the wishes we expressed in June”.

“The memory of the victims and freedom of expression have been served,” it concluded.

Médine will now be playing a single concert at the Zénith music hall in northeastern Paris on February 9, 2019.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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