Jon Frosch, France 24, November 6, 2013
As to be expected, France’s outspoken justice minister did not mince her words.
In an interview published Wednesday in left-leaning French daily Libération, Christiane Taubira, the charismatic black politician who made headlines with her passionate defence of France’s gay marriage law, denounces the racism she has recently encountered–and faults the French political class for not speaking out more against it.
Referring to recent incidents in which she was compared to a monkey on a far-right candidate’s Facebook page and taunted with a banana by a twelve-year-old at a street protest, Taubira said: “The reactions have not been sufficient. . . . What’s most shocking to me is that there has been no strong, beautiful voice raised in alarm at the downward spiral of French society [when it comes to racism].”
The justice minister’s remarks come just one day after Harry Roselmack, France’s most prominent black newsreader, penned an opinion piece for another French newspaper, Le Monde, accusing France of harbouring “deep-seated racism”.
“Racist France is back,” he wrote.
The one-two punch from two of France’s most visible black personalities has shone a harsh spotlight on an issue that the theoretically “colour-blind” country, with its proud motto of “liberty, fraternity, equality”, has had difficulty tackling.
Opening ‘Pandora’s box’
Though a report from the Paris-based National Consultative Commission of Human Rights (CNCDH) released in March 2013 found that racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and threats in France saw an increase of 23 percent in 2012, analysts agree that racism is hardly a new problem here.
“Racism has always been present in our society,” Alain Jakubowicz, the president of French anti-racism group LICRA (International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism), told FRANCE 24. “What’s changed is that racist speech has become more acceptable…Racism is an offence punishable by law. But the law is less respected [now].”
According to Jakubowicz, what he calls the “liberation of hate speech” began when right-wing former President Nicolas Sarkozy, halfway through his first term, opened a ministry (now closed) devoted to “national identity” – in other words, issues of immigration and integration.
“That opened Pandora’s box,” he said.
Pap Ndiaye, a historian and professor at Paris’s prestigious “Sciences Po” (formally known as l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris”), echoed Jakubowicz’s assessment. “That’s the negative effect of the debate over national identity: this attitude of ‘if our leaders are saying it, we can say it, too,’” he said.
The National Front factor
Ndiaye also pointed to far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s success in putting a more presentable face on her party’s platform as a potential cause for racist speech becoming more commonplace.
Once known for openly xenophobic stances and slogans, the National Front has taken great pains to weed out the more controversial voices in its ranks. Anne-Sophie Leclere, the mayoral candidate who posted an image of a monkey next to a photo of Taubira on Facebook, for example, has since been suspended from the party.
“The National Front is no longer politically and morally marginalised,” Ndiaye noted. That fact, he said, may partly account for what he called “the deafening silence” in response to the racism recently experienced by Taubira. “The right is influenced by the National Front, and the left is intimidated,” he offered.
In her interview with Libération, Taubira also accused the French political class, but particularly the National Front, of inciting racial resentment with their focus on the “threat” posed by immigration. “We need to stop making a daily soap opera out of immigration data,” she said. “How is immigration a problem? How is it endangering French society?”
Though the number of French blacks or Arabs is not known (race-based statistics are illegal in France), these populations have been estimated at a respective five and seven million — roughly 19% of mainland France’s 63-million total. Most are descendants of former French colonies in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and sub-Saharan Africa or former inhabitants of French islands Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Until very recently, French political, media and corporate spheres have been almost exclusively white, with only a handful of representatives, senators or mayors of colour.
But according to Ndiaye, a spike in openly racist speech is also a reaction to France’s becoming “more multicultural, more mixed, more open to the rest of the world”.
“There are contradictory currents in French society: mixing and pluralism and diversity on the one hand and racism from white people who think that France’s diversity endangers its grandeur,” Ndiaye assessed. “French society is neither racist nor anti-racist.”