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Page last updated at 10:35 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 11:35 UK

French rapper in censorship row

Orelsan (Photo courtesy of Manuel Lagos Cid/Wagram Records)
Orelsan's new album has been removed from public libraries in Paris

By David Chazan
BBC News, Paris

A 27-year-old rapper from Normandy, nicknamed by some the "French Eminem", is at the centre of a political storm over censorship in France.

Orelsan has seen 10 of his concerts cancelled recently after the former Socialist presidential candidate, Segolene Royal, and other politicians complained that his lyrics encouraged violence against women.

If you censor this, you could end up censoring many respected authors
Stephane Davet
Le Monde

Ms Royal even threatened to withdraw the public subsidy from one prestigious festival, Les Francofolies in La Rochelle, in her capacity as head of Poitou-Charentes regional council.

The organisers dropped Orelsan, whose real name is Aurelien Cotentin, from the bill shortly afterwards, complaining that Ms Royal had "positioned herself as a master-blackmailer".

The move led the governing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) of President Nicolas Sarkozy to accuse Ms Royal of attacking freedom of expression, and of "intolerable" interference.

'Fiction'

Ms Royal and other critics were particularly outraged over a song by the 27-year-old called Sale Pute, roughly translated as "Dirty Bitch", which is about a man who wants to break the bones of his unfaithful girlfriend.

Orelsan says he no longer performs Sale Pute in public

"I hate you, I want you to die a slow death. I want you to become pregnant and lose the baby," he chants in one verse. "You are just a pig who should go straight to the slaughter house."

But Orelsan says the song, which he no longer performs in public, was never meant to be taken seriously.

"This song tells the story of a man who sees his girlfriend cheating, comes back home, drinks and writes her an e-mail in which he insults her," he says.

"But it's a fiction. It's nothing real. I didn't write it about my ex-girlfriend or anything so you can't really take the song personally. I play a role in it, that's all."

"It's like a book or a film about a murderer or a criminal," he adds.

Historical parallel

Orelsan's new album, Perdu d'Avance, has been removed from public libraries in Paris because of concern over what feminist and women's groups say are his sexist, homophobic and violent lyrics.

But the French Culture Minister, Frederic Mitterrand, nephew of the late President Francois Mitterrand, says Orelsan, like other artists, should be free to express himself and that his concerts should not have been cancelled.

Frederic Mitterrand (left) and Segolene Royal at Les Francofolies (2009)
Frederic Mitterrand criticised Segolene Royal's threat to cut public subsidies

Mr Mitterrand drew a parallel between the rapper and the 19th Century French poet, Arthur Rimbaud.

"Rimbaud wrote much more violent things that went on to become classics," he said.

However, Ms Royal said the rapper's work was offensive to women and that the issue was not censorship.

Women's groups argue that the law should be as tough on sexism as it is on racism.

Regional councillor Michele Loup says Orelsan's songs "are full of hatred and violence against women".

"If he wants to do that, OK, but we consider that public money shouldn't finance it," she adds.

Ms Loup and other local politicians have led a lobbying effort to persuade local authorities to drop him from festivals which they are helping to finance.

Disaffected youth

But many commentators agree with the government that this comes dangerously close to censorship.

"Art doesn't have to be politically correct," says Stephane Davet, a music journalist on the newspaper Le Monde. "If you censor this, you could end up censoring many respected authors."

Audience at French rap concert (2008)
They want us to be exactly like them
French youth

Mr Davet says politicians should try to tune into what rappers have to say about disaffected young people.

He points out that rappers were predicting riots in French suburbs long before they happened in 2005.

Orelsan, he says, "gives a very interesting description, a pretty dark description of a generation of frustrated, white trash kids, born with a PlayStation in their hands, spending their time on the internet, looking for sex websites, and one should listen to that instead of saying, we should censor him".

At the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris, I came across groups of teenagers practising dance moves as if the station concourse were a studio or a gym.

Not surprisingly, they supported Orelsan, although several of them told me that they did not like their younger brothers and sisters to listen to rap songs with violent lyrics.

They said politicians did not try to understand their generation.

"They want us to be exactly like them," one youth told me. "They don't try to help us and they want to take away our personality."

That is also a predicament recognised by Orelsan himself. In one of his less controversial songs, he raps: "Old folk don't understand what's going on in the heads of the young."

David Chazan's report can be heard on BBC Radio 4's PM programme from 1700 BST on 29 July.



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