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March 4, 2009 No.
273

Algerian Reformist Malek Chebel: 27 Propositions for Reforming Islam

Malek Chebel, a renowned anthropologist focusing on the Arab world, is one of today's prominent French-speaking North African intellectuals. In 2004, he established, in France, the Foundation for an Enlightened Islam.

Chebel has published some 20 books on Islam, in which he has frequently dealt with sensitive and uncommon subjects, such as love in Islam: He claims that Islam is a sensuous religion and condemns the strict fundamentalist approach to relations between men and women. He has also tackled such taboos as wine and homosexuality in Islam. His publications include a Love Dictionary of Islam (Plon, 2004) and an Encyclopedia of Love in Islam (Payot, 1995). His other main focus is reform of Islam, to which he has dedicated two major books: Islam and Reason: The Struggle of Ideas (Perrin, 2005), and Manifesto for an Enlightened Islam (Hachette, 2004).

In his Manifesto for an Enlightened Islam (Manifeste pour un islam des lumières), Chebel puts forth 27 proposals for extensively reforming Islam. He turns to the values of the 18th-century European Enlightenment for guidance, when rationalism and secularism guided the drive towards cultural, social and political progress. Chebel's first two propositions set the principles of reform: a new interpretation of the Koran, and the preeminence of reason over creed. However, he dismisses atheism, noting that "nothing very important is achieved outside the framework of religion." [1]

Chebel calls for putting an end to violence in the name of Islam; for renouncing Jihad, which is, in his eyes, immoral; for abolishing all fatwas calling for death; and for abolishing Islamic corporal punishment. Chebel stands against female genital mutilation and for banning slavery and trafficking in human beings in the Arab world; for strict punishment of the perpetrators of honor crimes and for promoting the status of women.

Most of Chebel's propositions deal with politics: He advocates an independent judiciary, the preeminence of the individual over the Islamic nation, and the struggle against political assassinations in an effort to promote democracy in the Arab world. He also advocates fundamental cultural changes, such as turning freedom of thought into a Muslim value, renouncing the cult of personality, respecting the other, and fighting corruption.

His other propositions address technology, bioethics, ecology, and the media. The last one reaffirms the preeminence of human beings over religion. Chebel's propositions aim at providing keys to a modern, reformed, enlightened Islam.

The following is the fourth in the North African Reformist Thinkers Series. [2] The report focuses on Malek Chebel's response to the issue of women wearing the veil in Islam and the issue of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in September 2005 by the Danish paperJyllands-Posten, and presents Chebel's 27 propositions for reforming Islam.

I. Malek Chebel's Reaction to Recent Events

Europe is Too Lenient with Islamists

Chebel defines Islamism as a backward political ideology: "Fundamentalist Muslims are true fanatics. They consider progress the enemy of Islam [...] They are narrow-minded ideologues who use the Koran to achieve sinister political aims." [3]

Chebel accuses the West of allowing Islamism to spread freely, whereas part of the Arab world is striving to ban sharia law: "We must acknowledge that it is European, Western and modern countries that grant Islam the possibility to express itself, whereas at the same time, the sharia is being strongly fought against in a few Arab countries..." He adds: "As a Muslim, I feel more protected by the higher democratic principle of the [secular] nation-state than by the sharia, which is interpreted by the religious authorities as they wish, sometimes according to their moods… Sharia has never been a model of good governance in the Arab world. In any case, it must be separated from the political sphere." [4]

The Belgian daily Le Soir wrote, "In France, Chebel observes, Muslim girls want to wear the veil at school, whereas in Qatar, 200 girls demonstrated to be allowed to go to school without a veil." [5]

The Media Gives Too Much Coverage to Islamists

"Too much space is given to Islamists in the media," says Chebel, "The more space you give to fundamentalist Islam, the less there is for enlightened Islam. And it is the latter you need in order to live. Only enlightened Islam is compatible with world civilization, with Europe, and with the spirit of the [French] Republic. But times are difficult for moderate people." [6]

Islamists have also taken over the mosques, Chebel asserts: "The fundamentalists benefit from the economic crisis that affects the Muslim world. Islamists have taken over mosques, so they have an audience, and thanks to the financial support they get, they have set up an excellent social network aimed at assisting the poor suburbs they have infiltrated. This is where the problem lies. If we want to fight the Islamists, we must be as good as them in their own field." [7]

Returning to the Original Islam to Combat Islamism

Islam used to be modern, whereas today it is backward, says Chebel. He explains that only a return to the "intellectual heritage" of Islam will counter Islamism: "This disgusting ideology [Islamism] is fed by a kind of complicity, of indifference, of fatalism [...] We must provide Muslims with an alternative solution to which they can adhere. In order to achieve this, we should go back to the intellectual heritage of original Islam [...] This is what I am trying to do when I advocate a true and therefore modern Islam. As a matter of fact, [true] Islam has always carried [within it] modernity." [8] He says that as a "modern" religion, the original Islam did not deprive Muslims of their freedom of choice: "The Islam I love is freedom. But current Islam is not. It is controlled by a certain number of structures [societal, political, educational, and religious structures] aiming at destroying freedom. They impose one vision, one judgment, one outlook. They prevent any kind of free choice." [9]

The "enlightened Islam" Chebel advocates is based on the values of secularism. But, he explains, today the Arab world considers secularism to be a Christian threat: "Muslims have associated the concept of secularism with Christian aggression against Muslims. The word 'secular' sounds derogatory in the preaching of several preachers, like an insult." [10]

The Reform Movement in the Arab World

Chebel holds that while Islamism is very popular in the Arab world, there is also a growing reform movement against it: "Today, a certain Islamic trend is progressing in the right direction, even if we do not see it or do not want to see it.," [11] Chebel believes that in the long run, Islam will be forced to accept change in order not to be left behind by other civilizations. He says that this will happen through "addressing a number of issues Muslims do not want to address right now: the aspirations of young Muslims, equality between men and women, and, most importantly, the preeminence of the individual over the community." [12]

But these issues will be fully addressed only when the despotic regimes are removed: "I am saddened by the huge waste that prevails in the Arab world today: in this region of the world undermined by despotism and unrestrained corruption, a magnificent youth is being held at bay. The region enjoys intellectual and material resources that could significantly improve the gloomy social and economic conditions, if they were distributed fairly. Unfortunately, a bunch of potentates, autocrats, and theocrats is preventing the proper use of these resources. However, a whole generation of Muslims will not accept this any longer. In today's world, information spreads rapidly, and this allows for hope.” [13]

The Veil has no Basis in the Koran and Transforms Women into Political Tools

Chebel asserts that there are no religious grounds for women wearing a veil: "[The Islamists] make us believe that wearing a veil is a commandment of the Koran. This is untrue…" [14]

In his Manifesto for an Enlightened Islam, Chebel clarifies the political impact of the veil: "Whether it is called hijab, chador or burqu', the Islamic veil (jilbab in the Koran) emanates from a set of historical events that prevent it from being a mere piece of clothing like any other […]" Chebel says that today, as Islam in its political form is spreading in parts of the world that were not originally Islamic, the veil is meant to be a sign of adherence to the strictest kind of Islam. He says that the veil is the affirmation of faith in a neutral environment, and is also the tool of a conquering ideology, as new regions of the world are being targeted by political and ideological Islamist activism.

Chebel explains that the veil transforms women into mere political tools: "We would never have seen veils [all around] had it not been for manipulation by Islamists;" [15] "Wearing the veil means the regression of women. [It means] they cannot be trusted. [But] women can be [good] Muslims without wearing a veil. There were times when they did not wear a veil… The use of the veil is always political. It deprives women of their [human] image." [16]

As a matter of fact, there are no justifications other than political ones for wearing a veil, since Islam encourages physical expression and fulfillment, Chebel writes: "Men have taken over the sexual issue, and backward people have been allowed to express themselves freely. But this is absurd: Islam is originally a very sensuous religion which advises man to fully live his earthly life… Some texts even explain that divine love is conveyed through physical love, and when the Prophet was asked about what he had loved in this world, he would answer: 'women, perfumes and prayer.'" [17]

The Danish Cartoons: Muslim Rage Understandable - But Exaggerated

Chebel understands that believers were shocked by the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad published by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten: "Pictures of the Prophet remain one of the major taboos in Islam. Not only has this taboo been violated, but the Prophet has also been represented with a bomb on his head, which makes him the prototype of terrorists… We can understand that Muslims were shocked by a cartoon showing the founder of their religion as a terrorist." The cartoons are, in his opinion, "a deliberate provocation, and [express] a desire to harm [Muslims] which can only impede the [inter-religious] debate."

However, he considers the reaction of the Muslim world to be exaggerated: "People have a right to criticize religions, including Islam." [18]

II. 27 Proposals for Reforming Islam

In his introduction to his book Manifesto for an Enlightened Islam, Chebel clarifies several things. One of them is that he genuinely loves Islam and therefore is entitled to suggest reform proposals. Chebel makes it clear that he did not intend the book to be just another book on Islam, but rather that it put forth concrete proposals - 27 of them - that will pave the way for the current reform movement in the Arab world. The expression "enlightened Islam" aims at showing that Islam is not forever against progress.

He further explains that there are two approaches in the Muslim world today regarding the widespread phenomenon of dictatorship. One of them is to do nothing. This is the approach of the majority of Muslims, who lack knowledge and whose knowledge of the religion is limited to what the imams tell them. The second approach is that of turning to Islamism as a reaction to the dictatorship of regimes - and once they turn to Islamism, youths from all social strata may even sacrifice their lives for beliefs.

The following are Chebel's propositions.

Basic Comprehensive Reforms

Chebel suggests a number of basic comprehensive reforms to enable profound change in the Arab world. He combines reform in religion, politics, the judiciary, education, women's rights, etc.

A New Interpretation of the Koran: In reading the Koran, one should take into account historical changes. A new reading of the Koran should address the Muslims' current questions regarding Islam and the world. New interpretation is the only way to adapt Islam to modernity.

The Preeminence of Reason over All Other Forms of Thought and Beliefs: There is a general phenomenon of denial of science and progress in the Islamic world. In order to reform Islam, Islamic countries must review their religious education and adapt the Koran to the realities of the modern world. In so doing, they should get in touch with the lost, enlightened, Islamic civilization.

Society to Be Managed by Politics, Not Religion: This proposition refers to secularization (Ilmaniyya). Politics should be separated from religion and enjoy supremacy over religion. Chebel clarifies that the West was capable of such huge progress only because it escaped the hold of the Church.

Investing in Man: "There is no better way of approaching God than by allowing for the fulfillment of His most beautiful creature, Man," writes Chebel, adding: "Islam will remain forever a religion of the poor if its elite do not strive to place Man at the center of the social apparatuses."

According to Chebel, "investing in Man" also means fighting discrimination based on race or gender, fighting ignorance, and promoting education. It implies a fair distribution of wealth, taking into account the will of the people and respecting the "other" - including neighbors, foreigners, women, and children.

The Preeminence of the Individual over the Community: The fact that the community prevails over the individuals in Islam has delayed - and sometimes prevented - the emergence of a private sector encouraging self-expression. However, by claiming and repeating that Muslims are responsible for their actions and must bear their consequences, we begin to establish a distinction between the collective level and the individual level. According to Chebel, free choice allows for individual responsibility, which in turns allows for progress.

Freedom of Thought and Conscience Must Become a Muslim Virtue: Chebel says this is the most difficult goal. Freedom of conscience means accepting other Muslims as they are, with their sometimes lower degree of faith. Islam has managed to place all Muslims in one identical mold: People are not judged according to race or wealth. On the other hand, differences are defamed, and so is individual thought. In the light of Islam, free thinkers are nothing more than unbelievers. To counter this, Islam should develop a new kind of humanism, enabling freedom of conscience.

Respect for the Other: Chebel quotes a hadith which says that a Muslim is no believer if he does not want for his brother what he wants for himself. Muslims should respect others as much as they want to be respected, Chebel writes. If Muslims want Islam - its practices, bans on certain foods, and rejection of the mingling of men and women - to be respected by the West, they must show the same kind of tolerance towards other religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, in Islamic countries. It is fine to ask to build a mosque in France - but, as Chebel points out, Christians are not allowed to have churches in Saudi Arabia. It is fine to ask for free travel throughout the West - but Saudi Arabia [in theory] bans entry to non-Muslims. Chebel asks why members of non-Muslim faiths are not allowed to enter a mosque, even if they remove their shoes.

Specific Reforms

In addition to basic comprehensive reforms, Chebel proposes specific changes within Islam, in an effort to put an end to violence in the name of religion. He also suggests specific political reforms aimed at promoting democracy in the Arab world, and a set of social reforms meant to increase well-being and general happiness in Islamic countries.

Declaring Jihad Useless and Obsolete: "Is it possible to replace war with peace?" asks Chebel, and answers: "Jihad should be declared illegitimate since it entails death, which is not a noble thing in the eyes of the Koran, and also because it is used to justify all kinds of aggression." On the other hand, peace initiatives from outside or from within the Muslim world should be promoted. Chebel suggests the establishment of a Muslim NGO, with sufficient resources, to promote peace between people, in Islamic lands and everywhere needed. Chebel writes: "I believe no other region spends as much money for its armament, relatively, as does the Islamic world." In addition, Chebel notes that "there is no redistribution of wealth, and when there is, it only concerns the construction of mosques."

Abolishing All Fatwas Calling for Death: The issuing of a fatwa calling for death is a right that cannot be incumbent upon one single human being. A human being, however enlightened and infallible, cannot be granted more power than a whole court. The best thing is therefore to abolish the use of fatwas or at least the use of fatwas calling for death.

There are two kinds of fatwas: ordinary fatwas aimed at solving personal problems and fatwas deferring human beings to divine justice. This second sort of fatwa should be completely abolished, while the first kind might remain. A fatwa should be considered advice given by a competent authority, as the advice of a physician, and not be thought of as binding.

Promoting the Status of Women: Wife banishment, polygamy, forced marriages (especially at a very young age), honor killings (khalf at-thar), and other evils all result from the inferior status of women. Therefore, civil laws must be reviewed to enhance the status of women. Women should no longer be considered minors.

Chebel believes that women have been so denigrated by Islam that only strong political action will correct the situation.

Abolishing Corporal Punishment: There is nothing more barbarous than amputating the hand of a thief, cutting out the tongue of a liar, or stoning a sinner, Chebel writes. Such punishment, including flogging, existed prior to Islam, and one might wonder how it came to be included in a religion that otherwise advocates tolerance towards the weak. Also, since an adulterous woman is sentenced in the Koran to be flogged 100 times, no court can possibly prescribe the death penalty for adultery, as has sometimes happened.

Banning Genital Mutilation: Chebel demands that all types of genital mutilation be banned, since there is no basis whatsoever for them in the Koran and very little mention of them in the hadiths. Female candidates for genital mutilation, and their families, should be informed of its profane aspect. All sexual mutilation must be cleared of all religious content, he states.

Chebel notes that there has never been religious ruling regarding female genital mutilation.

Punishment for Honor Killings: Chebel wonders why women still have the "privilege" of embodying the purity of a given group. Such a "privilege" makes them the victims of honor crimes. In an effort to eradicate honor crimes, rules should be established to protect the weak, and women should be granted freedom of choice as far as love is concerned.

Modernizing the Civil Law and the Personal Code: Chebel asserts that Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) prevents Islam from being progressive and from promoting peace and tolerance. Fiqh was originally adapted to reality, but it is no longer relevant to it. Chebel suggests eradicating fiqh - which has become the "armed wing" of the religious oligarchy - and replacing it with a new set of rules adapted to modern times. The best thing for a reformed Islam would be to choose the most efficient laws of other countries and to implement them, provided they can be implemented in an Arab and Muslim context.

However, since complete eradication might be difficult to implement, Chebel suggests reviewing fiqh in order to remove what has become obsolete and keep what still bears life. In this framework, the most barbarous aspects of sharia must be denounced, such as amputating the hand of a thief, cutting out the tongue of a liar, or bequeathing a smaller inheritance to women. Reforming fiqh is necessary to promote justice and the status of women.

Chebel clarifies that as harsh corporal punishment must be softened, sanctions against such issues as corruption must be applied - as corruption should be considered the worst evil afflicting Islamic societies, Chebel says.

An Independent Judiciary: In Arab countries, the judiciary system is often subordinate to political power, which entails arbitrary verdicts. An independent judiciary will bring about greater justice.

Free Access to Sounds and Images: There should be free access to images and to all matters linked to art and music. There is no religious basis whatsoever to the claim that Islam bans images, Chebel asserts. As for music, it is considered a satanic activity when not religious. In the third millennium, Muslim musicians, singers and dancers cannot be prevented from practicing their art - no more than people can be prevented from surfing the Internet. Chebel calls for acknowledging the human aspect of music. The only reason music is banned is that Islamic leaders base their power on the ignorance of believers.

Fighting the Phenomenon of Political Assassination in an Effort to Promote Democracy: Political assassination has often been resorted to in order to overthrow rulers. It has no legitimacy in the Koran. Chebel enumerates no fewer than 150 assassinations of caliphs, presidents, kings and imams in the Islamic world.

No one should be able to claim to be God's representative on Earth in order to gain power, kill people, or issue fatwas. In order to prevent such situations, the religious and political spheres should be separated.

Eliminating the Cult of Personality in the Islamic World: Chebel writes: "The cult of personality [in Islamic countries] is a cancer that blocks political life in most Muslim and Arab countries." Millions of dollars are dedicated to the protection of the groups holding power, usually the president and his family. The people in power enjoy such important privileges that they do anything to remain in power or avoid elections. And in many Arab countries, no TV programming, press campaign, or radio programming is exempt from the obligation to express almost blind worship of the president and his family. The cult of personality serves anti-democratic regimes.

Firm Sanctions against Corruption: Chebel says that the only system that enables the people to control the rulers' actions is democracy. There will always be corruption in the absence of democracy. Laws must be promulgated to regulate states, enable the control of expenses, and establish accountability in the political and social spheres. Such laws will represent the beginning of democracy.

Investing in the Field of World Administration: How can Islam, or countries which speak in the name of Islam, make their voice heard in the international debates related to world administration? "Solidarity" with other countries is the key word to tomorrow's world administration: Muslims should go back to their ethical sources and promote inter-religious dialogue.

Banning of Slavery and All Other Trafficking in Human Beings: Chebel asserts that slavery is still widespread in Mauritania and in most of the Gulf countries, and in Sudan, Morocco, and Asian Islamic countries. The organizations fighting slavery should demand that it be banned in all Islamic countries. These countries should declare, in the first articles of their constitutions, that any trafficking of human beings (including destitute parents who sell their small children, as sometimes happens in Africa and Asia) is contrary to Islam. Significant funds must be invested in a campaign to abolish all forms of slavery, until it is completely eradicated.

The caste system, which still exists in Mauritania, in the Tuareg country, and in the entire Sahel region, should be considered a form of slavery, since higher castes unscrupulously exploit the work of inferior castes. Destitute women should also be helped, to prevent them from resorting to prostitution. Prostitution organized into networks should be fought, all the more as it is banned by sacred texts.

Promoting a Work Ethic: Chebel notes that work is denigrated in the Arab world. School curricula should define a new attitude towards work, promoting it as a positive value. The day work is valued, Chebel asserts, the mentality of leaders will change by itself.

Ending Usury: The Koran clearly condemns riba [usury]. But so far, no sheikh has issued a fatwa condemning the huge gains resulting from exploitation and enjoyed by autocrats. Islam should have a positive impact on economic issues, with a fatwa condemning corruption.

An Active Policy Regarding New Technology: Chebel notes that neither aviation nor railways, electricity, modern armaments, computers, or any other major invention were achieved by Arabs and Muslims. In fields that require technical knowledge, the Arabs depend on the West. He notes that, according to a U.N. study on the development of nations, the Islamic countries invest the least in education. This is not because of a lack of resources, Chebel says, but because of an existing mindset that is reluctant to invest in education. Chebel suggests the establishment of an Arab Fund to finance science, technology and industry.

Defining a Clear Bioethics Policy: Issues relating to life and death, such as abortion, contraception, and euthanasia, among others, should be given special attention, since science alone cannot provide answers to these moral issues.

Protecting the Environment: Chebel asserts that Muslims do not care enough about the environment, possibly because the technological backwardness of Muslim countries somehow ensures a natural way of life. However, education should include respect for environment and of archeological sites. Chebel mentions the destruction of the Buddha statues, wondering if Islamists in Egypt will one day ask for the destruction of the Pyramids.

Promoting Play: Modern psychology has shown that play and games are a factor in stability and personal fulfillment. Therefore, Muslims too should be allowed to enjoy the benefits of play. In its wider meaning, "play" includes poetry, sports, theater, artistic creation, seaside vacations, and more.

Once the implicit ban on games and playing is lifted, the Islamic lands will be able to display their true potential: warm seas and snowy mountains, where sport and tourism can be practiced. Millions of young people will be hired to build roads to access these sites - instead of being recruited by Islamist movements.

Conclusion: Youth, Civil Society, and Education are the Keys to Reform

In conclusion, Chebel states that youth, civil society, and education are the keys to reform in the Islamic world. He notes that several intellectuals in the Arab world are willing to promote reform - but are barely heard among the "surrounding noise of imams."

Chebel insists that change will begin with reform of the school curricula. All Islamic countries should dedicate important funds to education. The idea that the "other" is not an enemy, or evil, should be taught, and when doing so, common values should be stressed. People must be actively prepared for the advent of democracy, which will happen when the population in Islamic countries is mature enough to adopt it.

Chebel wonders whether Muslims can reform Islam to the extent of rejecting all forms of violence, considering the damage caused by violence in the name of Islam. In such reform, the role of religious authorities, who often advocate jihad and intolerance, should be restricted.

Chebel insists that the main resource of the Islamic world is its youth - and this youth will be the driving force of reform, provided it is properly educated.

* Nathalie Szerman is Director of MEMRI's Research for the North African Reformist Thinkers Project.


[1] http://www.sezame.info/index.php?action=article&id_article=75430&print=1&P, July 2004. Interview by Hakim Al-Ghissassi. Sezame is a French-language monthly dealing with French North African news.

[2] See other reports in the North African Reformist Thinkers Series: "French Moroccan Progressive Author on 'The New Islamic Thinkers,'" French Moroccan Progressive Author on ‘The New Islamic Thinkers’ ; "Tunisian Reformist Researcher on Discrimination Against Christians in Egypt," Tunisian Reformist Researcher on Discrimination Against Christians in Egypt ; "'Manifesto of Liberties' - A Muslim Association for Freedom in the Arab World" ‘Manifesto of Liberties’- A Muslim Association for Freedom in the Arab World .

[3] http://www.voir.ca/actualite/actualite.aspx?iIDArticle=39427, December 8, 2005. Interview by Elias Levy. VOIR is a French Canadian cultural weekly.

[4] http://www.voir.ca/actualite/actualite.aspx?iIDArticle=39427, December 8, 2005.

[5] Le Soir (Belgium), April 2, 2004. The interview was posted by Minorites.org, a French language site on minorities which publishes a great number of Arab reformists, http://www.minorites.org/article.php?IDA=1257 .

[6] Le Soir (Belgium), April 2, 2004, as posted on http://www.minorites.org/article.php?IDA=1257.

[7] http://www.lepoint.fr/edito/document.html?did=142343, January 12, 2004. Interview by Christophe Ono-dit-Biot. Le Point is a French news magazine.

[8] http://www.voir.ca/actualite/actualite.aspx?iIDArticle=39427, December 8, 2005.

[9] Le Soir (Belgium), April 2, 2004, as posted on http://www.minorites.org/article.php?IDA=1257.

[10] http://www.lepoint.fr/edito/document.html?did=142343, January 12, 2004.

[11] Source: Belgian daily Le Soir online (www.lesoir.be ), 04/02/04, as posted on http://www.minorites.org/article.php?IDA=1257.

[12] http://www.lepoint.fr/edito/document.html?did=142343, January 12, 2004.

[13] http://www.voir.ca/actualite/actualite.aspx?iIDArticle=39427, December 8, 2005.

[14] http://www.voir.ca/actualite/actualite.aspx?iIDArticle=39427, December 8, 2005.

[15] Le Soir (Belgium), April 2, 2004, as posted on http://www.minorites.org/article.php?IDA=1257.

[16] http://www.humanite.fr/journal/2004-01-24/2004-01-24-386724, January 24, 2004. Interview by Pierre Yismal. L'Humanite is a French Communist online daily.

[17] http://www.lepoint.fr/edito/document.html?did=142343, January 12, 2004.

[18] http://www.liberation.fr/imprimer.php?Article=355512, January 31, 2006. Interview by Marc Semo. Liberation is a French leftist daily.