LONDON — “Is France Racist?” That was the recent headline in a leading French newspaper, after a far-right magazine compared the country's black justice minister to a monkey. The incident has triggered self-reflection in France, where the far-right National Front party is ahead is some polls, and figures show a 23-percent rise in reported racist incidents last year.
The front cover of the far-right magazine Minute earlier this month depicted Justice Minister Christiane Taubira with a caption that read: "Clever as a monkey, Taubira gets her banana back" - a play on the French slang for smile.
A Paris court has opened an inquiry into the publication.
Deputy Education Minister George Pau-Langevin described it as an attack on French values. She said she thinks all French people care about the republic because it was built on the rejection of discrimination and racism, and on the equality of all people. That's why everything that goes against those fundamental principles of the republic harms the republic itself.
Christiane Taubira - who is from French Guiana, an overseas department of France - has been subjected to a series of racial slurs, including being compared to a chimpanzee by a candidate for the right-wing National Front. Taubira said she fears a threat to France’s social cohesion.
There has been a recent change of tone in public debate, said Rainbow Murray, an expert in right-wing French politics at Queen Mary University of London. “There’s always been an underlying racism in France shown by the difficulty in ethnic minority people finding employment. But there’s been perhaps more willingness to express that racism openly in recent months.”
Some observers trace France’s current racial tension back to 2005, when riots occurred in the suburbs of Paris and other cities. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s interior minister, described the rioters as "racaille" or scum - crossing a rhetorical line in describing the primarily immigrant communities.
Murray said France has never properly integrated its large immigrant communities. “One thing that’s unique about France compared to the UK and the U.S. and similar examples, is that they’re not multiculturalist. They’re integrationalist. So they deny the existence of difference even when it’s really there. And because of that they don’t have explicit policies capable of coping with race. They don’t even acknowledge race in census data.”
Author and blogger Priscilla Lalisse-Jespersen, an American from Alabama who moved to Paris with her French husband, traces the rise in racism to France’s economic woes. She spoke to VOA via Skype. “Unemployment is rising. The president’s approval is dropping steadily; he’s right now the most unpopular president in French history. France is also afraid of globalization, and they also have a national identity crisis.”
President Francois Hollande has condemned the attacks on Taubira. Rights groups accuse him of a lukewarm reaction - and warn that taboos over public displays of racism are collapsing.