Mixed reactions to The Voice contestant Mennel Ibtissem’s social media comments

Mennel Ibtissem, a singer who became an internet sensation following her performance on France’s The Voice, has quit the TV show after being criticized for comments she had made on social media.

French media reported that in a post about the attack in Nice, in which 86 people were killed on Bastille Day, she said: “It has become a routine, one attack a week! And to always remain faithful the ‘terrorist’ took his identity papers with him. It’s true that, when you’re planning a dirty move, you don’t forget to take your papers.”

Weeks later, after men burst into a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray killing an elderly priest, she said: “The real terrorist is our government.” The comments sparked a social media storm, with some users saying it was an insult to the victims of the Nice attack. The association of the victims said they were “unacceptable.” Shortly after, Ibtissem withdrew from the competition.

There have been mixed reactions to her comments.

The TF1 television channel that produces The Voice made clear they found her remaining on the show untenable. “Despite the sincere apologies, the atmosphere remained too tense. We hope her decision and the words she used will help ease the tensions,” a channel spokesperson said.

The National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, or BNVCA, joined many other anti-racism groups in condemning Ibtissem and demanding she be taken off the air.

“The candidate’s beauty and charm, her talent, must not in any way serve as a pretext for the television channel,” the organization said in a statement. “Mennel cannot serve as a role model for uninformed fans. She is not a good role model, she is not a good choice, she is dangerous.”

Others openly supported her.

Saïd Benmouffolk, a philosophy teacher at Codorcet de Limay high school, published an op-ed in Libération in which he voiced support for Mennel.

“We learn that she tweeted stupid ideas with conspiratorial orientations. Exactly what the majority of teachers in France heard in their classrooms after the attacks, in 2015 and 2016. No more, no less. Like all of us, Mennel is a child of her times. Youth doesn’t excuse anything, but it at least grants [her] the right to make mistakes. So she asked for forgiveness. She clearly condemned terrorism, but it wasn’t enough. She may say that she loves France, her country. She may regret the thoughtless remarks. It will never be enough. Because we don’t want to see her anymore. She must fade away, disappear, ‘pay’ [for what she’s done].”
Activist Samia Hathroubi also voiced her support. “How do we explain our leniency towards other artists who may have made the same comments, when we are so uncompromising with this young woman who became, in less than a few days, public enemy number 1? For all the young Mennels to come, we have a duty to speak the truth. A duty to raise our voices, because our silence will not save us.”

Henda Ayari, a French feminist and author who grew up in a Muslim family, said L’Affaire Mennel indicates an eagerness in the French media and beyond to seek the semblance of tolerance rather than the real thing.

“Wearing a veil does not make one a saint, modesty needs no veil, beauty needs no pretty face to shine, external beauty does not mean internal one. Never rely on appearances, they’re deceiving,” Ayari wrote on Twitter.

Speaking on the RMC radio state, Ahmet Ogras, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said that the young singer’s departure from the show was a “waste.” “She has a personal belief…of course the tweets shocked us, but she apologized. It’s a waste.  We must continue, we must continue to respect dialogue. We shouldn’t hesitate to talk and discuss,” he said.

Kheiron, a French comedian of Iranian origin, defended Mennel on Twitter. “The aim of this message is not to defend you by trying to prove that you’re against terrorism, we know that. The goal is not to say that it’s the far-right’s strategy to harm Muslims, we know that…It’s rare to see a veiled woman on television…It’s rare that this person is also beautiful, with big blue eyes and a bright, infectious smile…And moreover, you encourage tolerance? It’s too much for the racist parts of our country…I would have liked that you silence them by singing, and not by keeping quiet.”


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