PARIS — The flight to Tel Aviv was preparing for takeoff when Bilal Hassani, France’s Eurovision nominee, accepted a handset from the flight attendants.
“Buckle your seat belts and open your ears,” said Hassani, dressed in all white and a signature blond wig. “Are you ready? Let the show begin.” He proceeded to belt out the security announcements in song.
After a passenger posted a video clip on Twitter, a flurry of fans replied that they wished they had been on that flight, and they cheered for Hassani’s success at the international singing competition. But it wasn’t long before the replies included plane-crash footage from 9/11 and homophobic slurs.
Hassani, 19, is perhaps the most polarizing of the international contestants headed to Eurovision in May.
The competition often becomes a cultural theater for the political controversies of the day, and 2019 is no exception. Already, Ukraine dropped out after its candidate refused the state broadcaster’s request that she not perform in Russia. Leaders from Italy’s populist government attacked their contestant, a half-Egyptian rapper, for not being Italian enough. Iceland’s pick has threatened to stage an anti-Israel protest when the group performs at the competition in Tel Aviv.
Yet nowhere has the Eurovision debate reached as high a decibel level as in France, where the nomination of Hassani — a gay teen with Moroccan heritage from the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis — has fed into cultural clashes over national identity, religion and sexuality.
Hassani, who first gained a following on YouTube, won the French bid with a song called “Roi,” or “King.” He performed wearing sequined epaulets and the blond wig, while video clips from his childhood in the Paris suburbs played behind him. “I don’t follow the codes. That disturbs a lot,” the lyrics go. “At the end of the day you cannot change me, boo, so let me fly.”
Hassani says he doesn’t see himself as a culture warrior.
“I was never really drawn to politics, and I never really paid attention to it,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post at the office of his Paris producer.
He does not present himself as a champion of France’s disaffected suburbs or the gay rights movement. He seems more interested in evading categorization and playing with gender boundaries.
That fluidity has charmed, confused and enraged in equal measure. And although he was chosen as France’s Eurovision contestant by popular vote, he has faced an intense public backlash.
Right-wing senator Henri Leroy demanded his removal from the competition on the basis of a YouTube video in which Hassani, by Leroy’s estimation, “trivialized” recent terrorist attacks in France. Hassani said the video had been taken out of context and was designed to celebrate France’s 2018 World Cup victory.
Further outrage erupted over two posts from Hassani’s Twitter account in 2014. One appeared to defend comedian and convicted anti-Semite Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. The other accused Israel of “crimes against humanity” in the Gaza Strip. Again, Hassani went on the defensive, noting he was 14 at the time and suggesting that people he shared his password with might have sent those tweets.
To some extent, the scrutiny he has faced mirrors that of other young French people of color who have found themselves in the national spotlight. French Muslim singer Mennel Ibtissem was similarly pressured into withdrawing from France’s version of “The Voice” based on her social media posts.
But what has been especially striking, in a country that prides itself on indifference to sexual preference, is the number of homophobic attacks Hassani has endured since his nomination. He has been ridiculed by a prominent French television presenter, and his Twitter feed has regularly featured threats of physical violence, including death threats. His attorney has said they will file a police complaint on each one.
Hassani — who triumphantly sings, “You try to take me down, you cannot break me” — told The Post he was not fully prepared for the vitriol.
“When the wave just hits you, it hurts a lot,” he said. “If you expect it, you don’t expect it like that.”
Hassani said that he had an early understanding of his sexuality but that he hesitated to come out and open himself up to abuse.
“When I was, like, 7, I fell in love with a guy and I told my mom” but not anyone at school, he said. “I think when I was 13, I got over it and I was like . . . ‘I’m gay. Move on, people.’ ”
That would have been around when same-sex marriage became legal in France, in 2013. And, since then, the country has to some extent moved on. The government encourages tolerance in public schools. France’s mainstream television channels feature programs that depict homosexuality as normal and unremarkable.
Yet violent homophobic attacks have risen in France in the past two years, according to statistics from SOS Homophobie, a watchdog group. And opposition to same-sex marriage has galvanized France’s political right. When the government set up an online petition to determine which issues mattered most to the “yellow vest” protesters, who have been demonstrating in French cities and towns since November, the most widely endorsed demand was to repeal same-sex marriage.
“I want to know how people feel. But it’s always sad, as a human being, when you feel that people don’t like you for some reason,” Hassani said. “It hurts. It’s like: ‘Come on, guys. Leave me alone.’ ”
Unlike Italy or Ukraine, the government in France has come to the defense of its Eurovision contestant.
“There’s this cliche of the virile Catholic Gaul, but that’s a myth of French society, which was never like that,” said Frédéric Potier, head of the interministerial delegation against racism. “We are proud of French diversity today, which comes from a range of talents and skills.”
“There are people who don’t like it, but I’d just say to them: ‘The real France, it’s not you. It’s this young man,’ ” he said, referring to Hassani.
Frédéric Martel, a French journalist and historian of gay life in France, said that, “fortunately, there is a moral in this story.” He noted that Hassani was ultimately chosen by viewers to represent France. “The hatred that Bilal Hassani has endured also contributed to an exceptional mobilization of the French public, which allowed him to be elected to represent France on Eurovision,” Martel said.
Hassani said he is proud to sing for his country. “I represent a France that’s this new generation, I feel, that’s more outspoken, that’s more like, yeah, open to anything,” he said.
He added that the clamor over his nomination misses the point: “People need to remember that [Eurovision] is a show that’s about music and that’s about cultures gathering up and living through music — a moment that’s magical.”