Last Saturday, on the new, seventh season of the music competition reality TV show “The Voice,” Mennel Ibtissem, a 22-year-old student from the French town of Besancon and of Syrian descent, melted the hearts of the judges, the studio audience and viewers with her moving rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The show airs on France's leading channel, TF1.
Some of the newspaper reports crowned her performance a “sensation,” others called it “a moment of compassion.” One judge on stage declared it a “rare combination of external and internal beauty.” Even outside the French bubble, CNN correspondent Hala Gorani tweeted: “I’ve never watched this show before but this version of Hallelujah sung in English and Arabic by a young French woman of Syrian origin is really beautiful.”
Brigitte Macron, the French president’s wife, added on her account: “Hallelujah in Arabic, only on this program can you find such a beautiful mix.” It seemed that Ibtissem’s path was set – at least through the contest, if not further.
Two days following her performance someone pried into her social media accounts and found a smoking gun. Ibtissem wrote about the terrorist attack in Nice on Bastille Day 2016, when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian resident of the city, ran over celebrants who had come to watch fireworks on the promenade, killing 86 people and wounding hundreds of others, among them dozens of children. After being shot by police, he was identified by the ID card found on his body.
The young singer shared her thoughts at the time, that the attack was a “conspiracy”... “It has become routine, an attack every week,” she wrote. “And always, rest assured, they never forget to take their ID card.” She capped this gem with the hashtag #PrenezNousPourDesCons, meaning “they treat us like idiots.” The post was published July 15, a day after the attack.
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Moreover, she had also expressed support for the comic Dieudonné, who was convicted several times for anti-Semitic and racist comments in French courts, for the ideologue Tariq Ramadan, who preached “for a Muslim conquest of Europe from within” (and is now under arrest on suspicion of violently raping at least two women). A search of her accounts also revealed that she is close to the controversial Salafist volunteer organization Barkacity, which provides humanitarian relief to weak Muslim populations, mixing in extremist social and religious positions. Its founder and director, Idris Sihamedi, was quoted in the press claiming that “polygamy is a good way to prevent adultery, and working a veil is a sign of modesty.”
Just hours after the report (the first to uncover the story was Nice-Matin, a local Nice newspaper), Ibtissem deleted the above posts. She commented in a new post: “They attribute me with intentions I don’t have and that do not reflect any way of my thinking.” She later added: “I was born in Besancon. I love France. I love my country. I forcefully condemn all terror. This was the reason for my anger. How can you imagine support for something that’s impossible to support!”
She ended: “I support the message of peace, love and tolerance – and the proof of that is my choice of the Leonard Cohen song ‘Hallelujah.’ This song expresses exactly what I seek to express as a singer.”
Will the revelation impact Ibtissem’s future on “The Voice,” if at all? Only time will tell.