A Paris concert that's still months away is generating controversy. Muslim rapper Médine is scheduled to play at the Bataclan, the concert hall where 89 people were killed by Islamist extremists in a terrorist attack two and a half years ago.
The concert is stoking outrage among France's right wing. Laurent Wauquiez, the head of the mainstream right party Les Republicans, tweeted that holding this concert would be sacrilege for the victims of the 2015 attack and a dishonor for France. Far right leader Marine Le Pen gathered thousands of signatures on a petition to ban the concert.
"Is it normal that a militant, fundamentalist, Islamist goes to the Bataclan to express his hatred and defend ideas that I believe are inciting crimes?" she asked a reporter during an appearance on France's BFM TV.
Au #Bataclan, la barbarie islamiste a coûté la vie à 90 de nos compatriotes. Moins de trois ans plus tard, s'y produira un individu ayant chanté « crucifions les laïcards » et se présentant comme une « islamo-caillera ». Sacrilège pour les victimes, déshonneur pour la France.— Laurent Wauquiez (@laurentwauquiez) June 10, 2018
But Médine says he's always fought against radicalization in his music. And in a statement released by his record company he asked, "When did we start letting the far right manage the country's concert halls?"
The 35-year-old rapper grew up in the working-class port town of Le Havre, France, the son of Algerian immigrants. Médine has described himself as an "Islamo-hooligan." His lyrics talk mostly about the French Muslim experience — living in the ghetto, facing discrimination. His tone toward French society is often hostile.
Médine's critics are focusing on a song he wrote in 2015 called "Don't Laïk." It is a double play on words: on the French word laïcité, which means secularism, and on the English "don't like." A lot of French Muslims feel the country's official policy of secularism is used as an excuse to target their faith.
"Your beard, my brother, it's don't laïk / Your veil, my sister in this country, it's don't laïk," Médine raps in the song.
"First of all, the album had a subtitle, which was, 'The biggest battle is against oneself' — because jihad signifies the internal struggle above all," Médine said. "And secondly, this album came out in 2005 in a completely different context. It would be impossible to title an album Jihad today."
Médine has also worked to diffuse the French culture war over Islam. He co-wrote a book with a historian about racism in France. And his record label sells a line of T-shirts with the slogan, "I'm Muslim, Don't Panik."
Karim Amellal is working on a presidential commission to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in France. He says this controversy has gotten so big because every Muslim identifies with the accusations against Médine.
"Muslims have the feeling they are not recognized for their accomplishments and they are always [associated] with terrorists and jihadists," Amellal says.
Some of the survivors of the Bataclan terrorist attack have defended Médine. One tweeted that right-wing politicians should not exploit the victims of the attack for their bogus controversy.
"Marine Le Pen is even talking about 'our deaths,' " attack survivor Emmanuel Domenach wrote on Twitter. "It's shameful."
One victims' association, Life for Paris, defended the Bataclan, saying it was against censorship, and the venue should be free to book who it wants. "We will not let anyone use the memory of the victims for political ends, as is the case here," the association said in an official statement.
The theater itself has refused to get involved in the fray. But when reached on the phone, a Bataclan employee said that Médine has nothing to do with the terrorists.
Amellal says other rappers have much more offensive lyrics than Médine and that Médine never caused much controversy because he's actually an intellectual rapper with very complicated lyrics. Amellal believes this debate has galvanized public opinion because it involves two groups that are victims.
"It's like a showdown between two legitimate symbols," he says. "The Bataclan, which is a very symbolic place because of the terrorist attack, and Médine and Islam."
This spring, Médine released a new song, a sentimental ballad about the Bataclan. He raps, "All I ever wanted was to play the Bataclan."
The lyrics don't mention the attack. Writing in left-wing weekly magazine Marianne, novelist Arthur Dreyfus, who describes himself as being from the same generation as Médine, says the omission stuns him.
"That you dream of crucifying secularists, that's your right and privilege living in this country. ... I'm not in favor of censorship and I'm surely not a fascist," Dreyfus writes. "But how can you, less than three years after one of the worst massacres ever perpetrated in Paris, write a song about the Bataclan, where it took place, without even mentioning it?"
Médine's concert at the Bataclan is not until October. This debate is far from over.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A Paris concert that's months away is already generating controversy. A Muslim rapper is scheduled to play at the Bataclan. That's the concert hall where 90 people were killed by Islamist extremists in a terrorist attack 2 1/2 years ago. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The idea of the French Muslim rapper Medine playing for two nights at the Bataclan has stoked outrage on the right. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen gathered thousands of signatures on a petition to ban the concert.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARINE LE PEN: (Through interpreter) Is it normal that a militant fundamentalist Islamist goes to the Bataclan to express his hatred and defend ideas that I believe are inciting crimes?
BEARDSLEY: Medine argues that he's always fought radicalization in his music. In a statement released by his record company, he asked, when did we start letting the far-right manage the country's concert halls? The 35-year-old rapper describes himself as an Islamo-hooligan (ph). His lyrics talk about the French Muslim experience - living in the ghetto, facing discrimination. His tone toward French society is often hostile. So far, Medine's critics have focused on a 2015 rap song against French secularism. A lot of French Muslims feel the country's official policy of secularism is used as an excuse to target their faith.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LAIK")
MEDINE: (Rapping in French).
BEARDSLEY: Medine's song talks of crucifying the secularists like at Golgotha. It happened to come out just a week before terrorists killed 12 people at the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo. Medine's detractors are also criticizing one of his albums entitled "Jihad." In a recent TV interview, Medine said people are twisting his lyrics and taking them out of context.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MEDINE: (Through interpreter) First of all, the album has a subtitle which was "The Biggest Battle Is Against Oneself" because jihad signifies above all the internal struggle. And secondly, this album came out 2005 in a completely different context. It would be impossible to title an album "Jihad" today.
BEARDSLEY: Medine has worked to defuse the French culture war over Islam. He sells a line of T-Shirts with the slogan, I'm Muslim. Don't Panik. And he co-wrote a book with a historian about racism in France. Karim Amellal is working on a presidential commission to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in France. He says every Muslim can identify with Medine.
KARIM AMELLAL: Medine is one of the very important characters of the French Muslim community. Muslim have the feeling that they are not recognized, and they are always assimilated to terrorists and jihadists.
BEARDSLEY: Even a Bataclan survivor tweeted that politicians should not exploit the victims of the attack for a bogus controversy. The theater itself has refused to get involved in the fray, but when reached on the phone, an employee told me that Medine has nothing to do with the terrorists. Amellal from the presidential commission says this debate has galvanized public opinion because it involves two groups that are victims.
AMELLAL: It's like a showdown between two legitimate symbols - the Bataclan and Medine and Islam.
BEARDSLEY: This spring, Medine released a new song, a sentimental ballad about the Bataclan. He raps, all I ever wanted was to play the Bataclan. The lyrics don't mention the attack there. Medine's concert at the Bataclan is not until October. This debate is far from over. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATACLAN")
MEDINE: (Rapping in French). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.