A campaign of crude abuse against the black justice minister Christiane Taubira has exposed a resurgence of unashamed racism in parts of the hard and conservative right in France.
Ms Taubira, 61, a tiny woman who has risen from poverty in the West Indies to one of the most sought-after posts in French government, visited Angers on the river Loire last weekend. She was greeted by a demonstration against gay marriage, which included a group of well-dressed, middle-class children as young as 10.
The children were holding banana skins and shouting: “Who is the banana for? It is for the monkey.”
A few days earlier a demonstration by fundamentalist Catholics in Paris sang a celebrated refrain from an old advertisement for bananas on French television. The demonstrators – led by a priest – chanted the equivalent of “Banana it is so good. Taubira it is not so good.”
Last month France 2 Television interviewed a local election candidate for the far-right National Front in the Ardennes in northern France.
Anne-Sophie Leclere was asked why, since her party was officially non-racist, she had posted a picture of Ms Taubira on Facebook beside an image of a monkey.
The NF candidate replied that this was only a joke and not really racist. She added: “At the end of the day, I would prefer to see (Taubira) hanging off a tree rather than see her in the government. Quite honestly, she is a savage, coming on the TV with her devil’s smile.”
It was Ms Leclere who ended up being suspended – from the NF. The National Front president, Marine le Pen, was furious at such a public breach in her determination to give her party a “nationalist-not-racist” image. Ms Leclere was suspended from the party and removed from the list of candidates for municipal elections in March.
Ms Taubira was not satisfied. She said that the ex-candidate’s comments exposed the true nature of the NF. “For them it is blacks in the branches of trees, homosexuals in the Seine, Arabs in the sea and Jews in the gas ovens,” she said.
Ms Le Pen is suing the justice minister for libel.
The more recent racist attacks, by middle-class, conservative protesters, suggest that Ms Taubira spoke too soon. The campaign is wider and more insidious that a bubbling-up of raw racism within the National Front.
Ms Taubira is hated partly because she pushed through the law which legalised gay marriage in June. She has also become a focal point for an increasingly polarised political mood in France.
The unpopular left-wing government of François Hollande is regarded by parts of the right as not just a failure, but an illegitimate usurper of power. As a black woman minister of the left, Ms Taubira is seen as triply illegitimate – despite the fact that she comes originally from French Guyana, which is not a colony or a foreign country but constitutionally part of France.
She has become a target for the racism which has long seethed under the surface of parts of conservative and bourgeois, as well as blue-collar, France. Such attitudes are being kept under the surface no longer, says Pascal Blanchard, a historian and author of the book La France noire (Black France).
In recent years, he says there has been a backlash against the allegedly “politically correct” and a new willingness to think, and speak, in racial terms. “What was invisible has become visible,” he said. “Words that were once scandalous have become commonplace. What you used to hear at football matches, such as monkey sounds, are now used against a minister.”
Le Monde, in an editorial, said that the country had reached a new low when well-heeled, adolescent and pre-adolescent demonstrators could be primed by their parents to abuse a politician racially.
“Abjectness has become a children’s game,” the newspaper said.
RACISM AT THE TOP
Since becoming a minister in Italy’s latest government, Cécile Kyenge has repeatedly been subjected to racist slurs.
The vice-president of Italy’s Senate, Roberto Calderoli, a prominent member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, recently compared Ms Kyenge to an orang-utan.
Even the President of the United States, Barack Obama, has suffered similar treatment.
The President has been the subject of a number of caricatures with racial overtones, and the “birther” movement, which questions whether Mr Obama is really American, has galvanised many Republicans and was supported by high-profile figures such as Donald Trump.