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In France, a Woman's 'Emancipation Journey' Triggers Death Threats

FILE - A French national flag flutter on top of the Grand Mosque of Paris, in Paris, France, Nov. 27, 2015.
FILE - A French national flag flutter on top of the Grand Mosque of Paris, in Paris, France, Nov. 27, 2015.

Becoming a “free French woman” hasn’t been easy for Claire Koç, a 37-year-old French TV presenter and daughter of Turkish immigrant parents.

And it may prove dangerous.

To finish her university education and marry the man she loved she had to break with her family. She suffered hostility from them, too, when she decided in 2008 to become a French citizen.

And now her account of what she calls her “journey toward emancipation” detailed in a book, Claire, le Prénom de la Honte (Claire, the Name of Shame), is earning her death threats and the offer of police protection.

Supporters of French President Emmanuel Macron have praised Koç’s book, arguing it shows why he is right to explore ways the government can encourage assimilation and stop minority and immigrant communities from isolating themselves and living apart from the French Republic.

Last year, Macron warned against religious sectarianism, which he said “often results in the creation of a counter-society.” Cultural and religious separatism is leading to kids being kept out of school, and sports, cultural and other community activities being used as a “pretext to teach principles that do not conform to the laws of the republic,” he said.

Claire Koç is seen on the cover of her book Claire, le Prénom de la Honte or Claire, the Name of Shame (Social media)
Claire Koç is seen on the cover of her book Claire, le Prénom de la Honte or Claire, the Name of Shame (Social media)

Koç has received favorable book reviews. “Her book … is a rare plea for freedom and integration, against communitarianism and all obscurantism,” wrote reviewer Carine Azzopardi.

But some of France’s 6 million Muslims, especially Turkish ultranationalists, have voiced outrage. On social media sites, they accuse her of insulting Turkey. Some Muslim radicals say the book risks fueling Islamophobia.

The book is both an angry denunciation of the Turkish migrant community for its resistance to assimilation and a very personal tale of one woman’s emotionally painful struggle to make her own choices in life.

Koç told VOA she decided to use her family as an example of the resistance to assimilation. She was one year old when her parents immigrated to France in 1984 and grew up in Brittany and Strasbourg in public housing projects. In her book, she explains that as a child she was sent to Turkish lessons, where in the morning she would join her classmates in chanting the mantra, “Let my existence be a gift to Turkey.”

But she felt French, and increasingly so, and found herself at odds with her classmates. Her refusal as a youngster to attend mosque also marked her out.

The battles at home grew worse as she became a teenager.

“I wanted to work, I wanted to decide whom to marry and I wanted to go to university,” she told VOA. “My family told me that it wasn’t for an Anatolian woman to decide these things.” Her parents wanted her to marry a boy from Turkey, preferably from their home village.

She says satellite television helped her family maintain cultural separateness from the French — they would watch only Turkish channels all day and followed Turkish politics, Turkish sports. Her family was uninterested in France and made no effort to adjust or to adopt French values, she says.

Nor did they learn to speak French.

“How is it possible,” she writes in her book, “to live for 40 years in a country without mastering the language and to think … that a boss will take you on if you have made no effort to integrate?” Her father, she says, just mirrored what many others in the Turkish community do -- complain about racism, accept welfare payments and make little effort to get work.

“I had one wish — to escape and to leave a family I found archaic,” she told VOA. Her godsend, she says, was the cinema: movies helped her to understand the country she lived in and to learn things she wasn’t learning at home.

Defying her family, she attended a university, and there met by chance a young Turkish man from a family of Alawites, a sect of Shia Islam. When her family found out she was seeing him, they insisted they marry. She was 22 years old, but soon after they were together, her new husband told her she had to stop studying.

“He wanted me to live a similar life to my mother’s,” she says. Within a year they were divorced and she returned to the Université de Strasbourg, to the frustration of her parents and the disdain of Turkish neighbors. “They would cross the road when they saw me: they looked at me as though I were a whore,” she explains.

Her family rejected her completely when she married a Frenchman following the divorce.

The wounds of her struggle with her family have not healed.

That became clear during VOA’s interview with Koç. She choked up as she explained how she learned of her father’s death two months ago from COVID-19. “I found out from a text message,” she says.

His death precluded any opportunity for a reconciliation, one she still harbored hopes might take place one day, given time. “It is very difficult,” she said, shedding tears. “I had hoped my father one day would meet my son.”

For her naturalization procedure, Koç changed her given name from Cigdem to Claire.

“Claire? Are you serious? What a disgrace!” her brother said when she told him of the switch, she writes in the book. Her two brothers have shown no interest in communicating with her since their father’s death.

Koç is unsparing in criticism, taking aim not only at religious and cultural obscurantism but also at some anti-racist politicians and groups for feeding, she says, an attitude that immigrants are always victims of racism. And she criticizes French mosques, funded by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, for encouraging Turkish immigrants to maintain themselves apart from mainstream French society.

“I am not denying my origins,” she tells VOA. "But I am proclaiming my love for France, which has allowed me to be free.”

Koç has filed a criminal complaint after facing a torrent of abuse and insults on social media sites. One post, accusing her of being a traitor, displayed a Turkish flag and a gray wolf’s head, the emblem of Turkish ultranationalists.

Her lawyer, William Goldnadel, says the threats are alarming. “Those people don’t mess around: When they describe you either as a traitor to your country or as a terrorist and try to find your address with determination, it’s very worrying.”

French politicians have rallied to her side. Rachid Temal, a Socialist Party senator, tweeted this week: “All my support to Claire Koç who like everyone has the right to choose their life, their loves and their life course. No one should be harassed for their choices.”

Senator Valerie Boyer, a member of the liberal-conservative Republican Party, tweeted it is “intolerable that she has been harassed because she loves France too much. How long are these threats going to continue?”