The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France’s black justice minister slams U.S. racism after Ferguson

French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira speaks during the questions to the government session at the National Assembly in Paris on Nov. 18, 2014. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

As countless Americans fumed over what they saw as a lack of justice in Ferguson, Mo. — where a grand jury opted to not indict a white police officer who had gunned down unarmed black teenager Michael Brown — the French justice minister joined the chorus of outrage.

On her Twitter account, Justice Minister Christiane Taubira wrote first in French: "Michael Brown, racial profiling, social exclusion, territorial segregation, cultural marginalization, guns, fear, fatal cocktail!"

Then she proceeded to tweet in English, lamenting the death of young black youth shot by police in the U.S. Taubira, 62, is originally from French Guiana, an overseas department of France that's on the northern coast of South America. She ended her Ferguson-related tweets with a quote from the Bob Marley song "I Shot the Sheriff."

Asked to expand on her remarks by a radio station, Taubira said she would "not make value judgments on the institutions of the United States," but then appeared to do so immediately. "When the sense of frustration is that strong, that deep, that long-lasting and that huge, there is a reason to question whether people trust these institutions." She added, "You realize that somehow it only happens to the same people: Afro-American kids."

Taubira, who assumed office in 2012, drew criticism from her political opponents. The right-wing mayor of the city of Nice rebuked Taubira for considering "it appropriate to judge the American justice system" and said her continued role as justice minister made him "ashamed for my country."

Whether or not she was justified in wading into the fray across the pond, the French justice minister is used to being at the center of conversations on race and prejudice in her own country. She is often the direct target of abuse and claims to regularly receive racist hate mail.

A former far-right candidate for municipal elections earned prison time earlier this year after posting a photo of Taubira alongside that of a monkey. "I prefer to see her swinging in a tree than to see her in government," said Anne-Sophie Leclere, whose hate speech garnered a nine-month prison sentence and a hefty fine.

France's xenophobic, anti-immigrant far right has made particularly strong strides in local and European elections in the past two years, animated by the supposed threats of radical Islam and a wider trend of nativist politics that's gained ground across the continent. Figures like Taubira — standard bearers of the politically correct multiculturalism the far right loathes — are in their crosshairs.

But Taubira, a divorced mother of four who also happens to be one of France's biggest advocates for same-sex marriage, is defiant. This year, she has come under attack for a controversial prison reform bill that would scrap the mandatory minimum sentences imposed by previous French President Nicolas Sarkozy and, among a variety of more humane measures, would offer probation instead of prison time to certain convicted criminals. A member from Sarkozy's center-right party described the proposal as "cuddling therapy for jihadists." Critics accuse Taubira of being too soft on crime, but she could likely point to a darker legacy.

France saw its worst race riots in recent memory in 2005, when Sarkozy was building his profile as the country's iron-fisted interior minister. He had gone to the suburban ghettos where many of France's more impoverished African and North African minorities lived and warned that he would clean out "thugs" and crime with a "power hose." Those comments were hardly welcome for communities that have for years complained of institutional discrimination, which, among other things, impedes their access to jobs.

And that tough talk rang hollow after the deaths of two teenagers in a Paris suburb who had been fleeing police officers in October 2005. The weeks of riots that followed led to thousands of arrests, countless cars and buildings torched and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.

French filmmaker Matthieu Kassovitz, whose critically acclaimed 1995 film "La Haine" (see the trailer above) was said to have anticipated this explosion a decade later, wrote at the time in the Guardian of the root causes of the violence, pinning the blame on Sarkozy and his alleged contempt for marginalized ethnic minorities:

If the suburbs are exploding once again today, it is not due to being generally fed up with the conditions of life that entire generations of "immigrants" must fight with every day. These burning cars are [in direct response to] the lack of respect the minister of the interior has shown towards their community.

France may be a world away from Ferguson, but it's clear the anguish and rage seen on the American suburb's streets can echo elsewhere.