‘Is France becoming racist?’

November 7, 2013
Photo by Priscilla Lalisse-Jespersen
Photo by Priscilla Lalisse-Jespersen

An earlier version incorrectly identified Christiane Taubira as France’s first black minister.

Racism has struck again in Europe.

First, Italians threw bananas at their Congolese-born Immigration Minister Cécile Kyenge, and now France’s justice minister has become the latest victim of vile behavior.

Christiane Taubira was recently compared to a monkey on French television by Anne-Sophie Leclere, a far-right politician. And if that weren’t enough, Leclere posted photos on her Facebook page pairing Taubira, who is from French Guiana, with a photo of a baby monkey and a caption underneath that read, “At 18 months.” The caption under Taubira’s photograph, read “Now.”

It gets worse. Leclere also told France 2′s “Envoyé Special” that she would prefer to see Taubira “in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government.” Yes, she actually said that.

Leclere was the Front National’s mayoral candidate in Rethel, in the northeastern Ardennes region, but has now been dropped from the party and will face a disciplinary hearing. Apparently she didn’t get the memo that Marie Le Pen is desperately trying to clean up the party’s (and her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s) racist image.

Taubira, known and respected for her work — especially for shepherding the gay marriage law — didn’t keep silent about the attack. “We know what the FN thinks: the blacks in the branches of trees, Arabs in the sea, homosexuals in the Seine, Jews in the ovens and so on,” she said in an interview with Le Point. She also described the FN party’s policies as “deadly and murderous.”

Of course, Marie Le Pen, who has held the reins of the FN party since 2011, responded dramatically, with a call for Taubira to resign and the threat of legal action. “Nothing justifies such an expression of hate against an entire party and its millions of voters,” she declared.

In an interview Wednesday with Liberation newspaper, Taubira states that she is worried about France, and that the country is decaying.

I think she’s right, and apparently I’m not the only one.

Wednesday’s blaring headline for Le Parisien reads “La France devient-elle raciste?” (Is France becoming racist?) Actually, the problem of race has always been here. How many documentaries have we seen about the relationship between “native” French people (read, white) and Arabs, Jews, or Africans? Who doesn’t know about the stereotypes that exist when it comes to minorities, especially in the French workplace? One doesn’t have to rely on documentaries. If you live in France and your eyes are open, you know that racism exists.

When I first arrived in Paris in 1999, a human resources director confided in me that if a potential candidate sends in a CV with a name like Fatima or Mohammed, that person’s application is trashed. Immediately. No questions asked. And the same goes for apartment applications. I’m not suggesting that this happens systematically in France, but it does happen a lot.

Often when people think of France, and especially when people compare France to America, they think that racism is obsolete here. “Why, didn’t James Baldwin move there? The beautiful and talented Josephine Baker?” Yes, but that was then. America was different. France was different. This is now.

Since President Obama’s election in 2008 as the United States’ first African American president, critics have frequently referred to him with racially offensive words and images. Recently, conservative commentator Anne Coulter referred to him as “Putin’s monkey” during a television interview.

What’s new is this level of overt racism, which has been brought to the forefront by LeClere’s verbal assault on France’s black justice minister. The more accurate headline for Le Parisien would have been “Is France becoming more outwardly racist?”

Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Where are they? What’s happened to them? Racism is no longer discreet in France. People say whatever comes to mind, no matter how horrible or inappropriate. And they are not hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet to do it; they are no longer afraid to spew their hatred in person.

For example, a friend, who works in a luxury hotel restaurant, told me recently that her boss threatened to “bring in some Africans” if they didn’t “get their act together” and work harder.

And just last week on the metro, I witnessed a Frenchman yelling at an African lady because she wouldn’t give him her telephone number. Since she ignored him, he decided to go on a rampage and told her to go back to her hut in Africa. He also told her that she was lucky to be in France where she could shower and wear perfume every day, and not have to carry water on her head. Finally he got off the train, but not before shocking the handful of us who witnessed the one-sided conversation.

Why is overt racism on the rise in France? Le Parisien cites several reasons, including France’s economic crisis, a national identity crisis, and globalization, which the French find threatening.

What will French President Francois Hollande do about this increase in overt racism in France? Or maybe the question is: will he do anything? According to a recent poll, Hollande’s popularity has fallen to an all-time low of 25 percent. Sadly, he might not be France’s best hope for anything.

Luckily, Christiane Taubira is extremely tough. She’ll stand her ground, as we saw during the same-sex debates earlier this year, and she will create change, I think. At least I hope so.

Priscilla Lalisse-Jespersen is the editor and founder of Prissy Mag, an Anglophone Webzine about life in Paris as an expat, and the author of “Stockdale” and “Next of Kin.” Find her page on Facebook.

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