PARIS (CNN) — This is a country which says races don’t exist: there is only the human race, to which we all belong.
This is a country which, unlike the U.S. and Britain, has purposefully limited freedom of speech in order to criminalize verbal violence and incitement to hatred in all its forms.
But this is also a country where the Black justice minister Christiane Taubira is welcomed by a child with the words “Hey, guenon [monkey], go and eat bananas!”
The 12-year-old girl who uttered those words in the town of Angers on October 25 had come with her parents to protest against the same-sex marriage law of which the minister has become a symbol. In the crowd of protesters were a dozen children shouting the word guenon; their parents looked pleased, proud even.
And we thought, naively, and rather condescendingly, that this sort of racist abuse could only be found in a country like Italy, ethnically less diverse than France.
We all remembered Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi repeatedly describing U.S. President Barack Obama as “really much tanned”.
We all remembered, earlier this year, Congo-born Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first ever Black minister, having bananas thrown at her. Italian senator Roberto Calderoli even referred to her as “having the features of an orangutan.”
We thought such coarse xenophobia could not take place here. No, surely not in France! How wrong we were.
It actually took many of us by surprise. The fact that parents asked their children to hurl racist abuse at a government minister added to the sense of shock.
As explained in a timelime in French weekly L’Express’, it actually took days for the French political class to react to the racist insults endured by Taubira. Why such dithering? Some were embarrassed; others feared they might exacerbate the current tension in France if they made too big a fuss.
The same sex marriage legal battle which raged on last year seems to have reopened a box we thought long shut: France has witnessed the resurgence of a far-right alliance between traditionalist Catholics and ultra-conservatives who suddenly see themselves as the new revolutionaries. At night, they dream of insurrection. It has sometimes felt like being thrown back in time, to the 1930s.
On November 13, however, Minute, an extreme-right publication which ran the monkey analogy on its front page, was formally investigated for racism, and Interior Minister Manuel Valls said he was looking at blocking the distribution of the magazine.
“We cannot let this pass,” he said. “This is not just Christiane Taubira who has been attacked for her color. It is the Republic, it is France and its values that are under attack.”
For the Paris-based Moroccan poet and writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, in an open letter called “Racism, the ultimate temptation” and published in the Italian daily La Repubblica on November 15: “Everywhere in Europe, we see the resurgence of racism. It may only be words but it could end with the gas chambers.”
According to Jelloun, France is no more racist than its neighbors but the real problem is that, today, racism finds an ideal breeding ground on social networks where anonymity unleashes unrestrained violence.
In a famous recent case, the French justice system, often harsher on verbal violence than many other countries, has tried to stop Twitter from serving as a platform for all kinds of xenophobic abuses presented as “jokes.”
In October 2012, racist hashtags in French such as #IfMyDaughterComesHomeWithABlack or #AGoodJew unleashed the worse examples of unrestrained racism.
In France, racial insults in public are punishable by up to six months in jail and fines of up to €25,000; French justice was determined to sanction the xenophobic twitterati.
At first, Twitter told the French justice it could not reveal its users’ identities and would only obey the laws of California where it was based.
But French judges argued — successfully — that the targeted public and the racist perpetrators were French-speakers operating from France. Twitter eventually complied to reveal the identity of those who had generated racist tweets so they could be prosecuted in France: A victory.
French judges should now turn their attention to the French parents who teach their children to shout racist insults at a government minister born in French Guyana. Punitive sentences would be welcome. As would the end of anonymity on social networks.
Editor’s note: Agnes Poirier is a French journalist and political analyst who contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and TV in the UK, U.S., France and Italy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers.