Role model

Inspiring sidewalk interview just a hint of Danielle Mérian’s extraordinary life

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks that cut short 130 lives in their prime, one 77-year-old woman is being celebrated as a grande dame of tolerance, a heroine for troubled times

Danielle Merian, interviewed at the memorial outside the Bataclan concert hall in Paris. (Facebook/BFM-TV/Beur FM)

Meet France’s so-called feel-good granny. In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks that cut short 130 lives in their prime, one 77-year-old woman is being celebrated as a grande dame of tolerance, a heroine for troubled times. In a few whirlwind weeks, Danielle Mérian has even helped put Ernest Hemingway atop the bestseller list. The deceptively conservative-looking Mérian is indeed a grandmother of three. But as a retired lawyer, ardent feminist, and human-rights activist, she isn’t quite your proverbial granny holed away with her knitting. And now she’s a star. “What an adventure. Can you believe it? From a few words on a sidewalk,” Mérian tells Women in the World, astonished.

It began with a vox-pop interview outside the Bataclan music hall, where 90 concertgoers at an Eagles of Death Metal show were killed on the night of November 13. The silk-scarved Mérian, who has lived nearby for 19 years, had come to lay flowers at a makeshift memorial outside the venue. Approached by a French TV news crew, she declared, her chin pitched high in a striking mélange of prim, proper, and defiant, “It’s very important to bring flowers to our dead. It’s very important to see, several times, Hemingway’s book, A Moveable Feast,” she said, using the book’s French title, Paris is a Party, two copies of which she’d spotted among the memorial’s tealights and bouquets. “Because we are a very ancient civilization and we will hold uppermost our values. And we will fraternize with the five million Muslims who exercise their religion freely and kindly. And we will fight against the 10,000 barbarians who kill, so they say, in the name of Allah,” she proclaimed.

In a nation where Marine Le Pen’s opportunist far right courts social conservatives and exploits Islamophobia to devastating effect, one senior had spoken eloquently against type. Cue nationwide swoons.

So-called feel-good granny, Danielle Mérian is a retired lawyer, ardent feminist and human-rights activist. (Courtesy Danielle Mérian)

Danielle Mérian is a retired lawyer, ardent feminist and human-rights activist. (Courtesy Danielle Mérian)

Within hours, the grandmother with the bourgeois countenance was a social-media phenomenon. The newschannel that had interviewed her, BFM-TV, dubbed her the “Grandma Who Does Us Good” on Twitter. France’s Ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, retweeted the 28-second video, too. And Beur FM, a radio station catering to France’s large North African communities, shared the clip on its Facebook page, reaping 6.6 million views, more than 200,000 likes, and 100,000 shares. Among 7,000-plus comments, the gist needs little translation; they are awash, from Muslim and non-Muslim names alike, with “Bravo,” “Chapeau,” and “Merci, Madame.”

Quickly, Amazon France had sold out of A Moveable Feast, suddenly wildly popular. Hemingway’s French publisher, Folio, credits Mérian’s emphatic blurb with amplifying a nascent trend to snap up copies in the wake of the attacks. The 1964 American classic is now France’s third-bestselling paperback and has been reprinted three times in three weeks, for 80,000 additional copies. Paris Est Une Fête, as it is known here, usually shifts only 10 or 15 copies a day.

A young Muslim man in Toulouse even launched a social-media campaign to locate Mérian and crowd-fund a bouquet of flowers for her in thanks. Karim Boukercha hoped to collect 200 euros. Mérian got her 40 red roses alright; the card was signed “on behalf of the internet.” But in the end, Boukercha’s #DesFleursPourDanielle campaign, “Flowers for Danielle,” has raised 16,130 euros from 1,824 donors. Incredible.

“So obviously my neighbors are calling me Grandma Danielle on purpose to infuriate me,” Mérian jokes. Friends tease that she is now France’s national grandmother.

“I think Muslims have a panicked fear of being taken for the scapegoats of these horrors,” she says of the November attacks. “I get stopped in the street [now] continuously by Muslims hugging me, saying, ‘Thank you, Madame, for your words of fraternity.'” She tells of a hotel she stayed at recently in Marseille where Muslim staff members offered her flowers. A man at a crosswalk there got out of his car to hug her, she recounts, “a huge fellow who took me in his arms and smothered me as if I’d saved his life.” She says, amused, “Now when I have a meeting, I leave extra time for the people who are going to stop me in the street.”

But it turns out the internet, in its wisdom, picked a helluva grandma to support. Indeed, the term might be almost insultingly reductionist, but Mérian’s taking it in stride. “Well, a lot of the donors to Flowers for Danielle are young people. So obviously, I’m an old lady. There’s no doubt about that,” she says. And she is thrilled about spreading around the internet’s largesse. Mérian has pledged a quarter of the funds to the French Association of Victims of Terrorism (AfVT), out of respect for the Parisian casualties. The rest will go to a panoply of organizations she belongs to. The former family lawyer has been an apparently tireless supporter of horrifically difficult causes for decades.

Some of the kitty will go to Action of Christians Against Torture (ACAT), where the churchgoing-Catholic Mérian has been a member for 40 years. Another chunk will go to Parcours d’exil, where Mérian is vice president, which runs a care center in Paris for victims of torture. Yet more will go to Prisonniers Sans Frontières (Prisoners Without Borders), which works for more humane prison conditions in West Africa.

But the lion’s share will go to SOS Africaines en Danger (SOS African Women in Danger), a group created by asylum-seeking African women against excision and forced marriage, which Mérian presides. “I have an immense admiration for these women. It’s the first generation of African women revolting against two crimes which are female genital mutilation and forced marriage, conjugal rape. They are my granddaughters,” she says affectionately.

“I’ve been fighting for two years to try to find cash for this organization that interests no one,” she says. “Genital mutilation is a permanent torture as long as one isn’t repaired, plus conjugal rape every night, with old men who are 55 when [the girls] are 9, 10, 11, you see? It’s really my latest battle for women’s rights,” Mérian explains.

Indeed, she dates her commitment to women’s issues to her childhood. “I carry a unisex first name because my father didn’t want daughters. So he always planned ahead with a unisex name in case of a snag. I am a snag,” she deadpans. “I have a brother 14 months older than me who was showered with presents, put on a pedestal. I could cry out all I wanted that the seat of intelligence isn’t in the willy, I wasn’t heard at all,” she says.

“I didn’t become a lawyer for nothing. And really the fight for women’s dignity, for equality… Given my age, I was well-acquainted with all of the battles of the 20th century,” Mérian considers. “I saw the whole evolution of the marriage contract, right up to ‘Marriage for All’ [France’s 2013 gay marriage legislation], which is the end of discrimination in the eyes of the law — not in hearts and minds, but at least in the letter of the law. I saw all of that. I was there for all of those battles,” she says.

Mérian believes there are more battles to wage, but they are torches for someone else to carry. “For example, breast ironing in Cameroon, an unspeakable horror, where mothers torture their little girls to keep their breasts from growing by burning them every morning so they won’t dishonor the family when a man throws himself at them because they have breasts. It’s an absolute horror,” she laments. “What’s more, that practice is growing, while genital mutilation is regressing. Someone needs to stand up to lead that fight, but I can’t do everything,” she concedes.

A new clarion call from France’s new iconoclastic senior celebrity? Internet, on your marks. Grandma Danielle says so.

Related:

Historic win for Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right Front National in France

Will the Paris attacks bolster the far right’s bid for power?

“It is time to scream: ‘Not in my name’”

Father and son’s discussion about Paris attacks will melt your heart

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