France has been rocked by claims that its society is becoming more racist, especially after the nation's top black politician was compared to a monkey three times in one month this fall – once by schoolchildren.
But as the nation soul-searches over racial prejudice, a spirited defense has come from an unlikely place: the newly crowned Miss France. Flora Coquerel, whose mother is from Benin in west Africa, said over the weekend that she was “proud to represent a cosmopolitan France.”
Many might dismiss the very notion of a beauty pageant, and thus the messages it sends, but its reach is undeniable: 8.2 million viewers tuned in Saturday night, making it the most-watched program of the weekend.
Her wading into the debate is also significant because the pageant's former lifetime president, movie star Alain Delon, resigned over criticism of his support for the National Front (FN), France's far-right, anti-immigration party. And the pageant has itself been singled out for perpetuating racism. Louis-Georges Tin, the head of a minority rights group, complained last year of a dearth of black and Arab contestants. As the AFP noted, Tin said that the contest's lineup denied "the very existence of French people of African origin.”
Ms. Coquerel had said before Saturday's contest in Dijon that her mixed heritage would be an advantage in the race, which is decided by television viewers and a jury: "It shows that today's France is a mixed France, where there is every culture, and I think a lot of people will see themselves in me," she said.
France prides itself as the birthplace of the rights of man and a bedrock of modern social norms. Indeed, its belief in its own tolerance means that citizens are not classified by race and ethnicity, as they are in the US; everyone is simply French.
But racism claims continue to dog the Fifth Republic. From ministerial comments about the Roma not being able to integrate, to slurs by the FN founder directed at Muslim immigrants, xenophobia has been on the rise. A report by the National Consultative Commission of Human Rights (CNCDH) this spring showed that racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim acts and threats in France grew by 23 percent in 2012.
Most shocking of all have been the slurs against Justice Minister Christiane Taubira. The most recent, and most explosive, came last month on the cover of “Minute,” after the publication ran HER picture with the caption: “Clever as a monkey, Taubira gets the banana back.”
Eat your banana
Minute's editorial decision was condemned across the political spectrum, including by the FN. Not long before, an FN mayoral candidate said she'd rather see Ms. Taubira “in a tree” than in government (the candidate was expelled by the party, which is trying to present a more tolerant face).
Equally alarming were the chants by several children who she said yelled at her, “Monkey, eat your banana!” at a demonstration against gay marriage, which Taubira supports.
The larger political context is the FN's challenge to mainstream parties in France. Led by Marine Le Pen, the FN IS poised to do well in local and European elections this spring. Le Pen told France 24 that she considered France “the least racist country in the world.” She added: “French people do not judge people by their skin color or their origin. As long as people are well behaved and respectful of French people, they have welcomed them. Welcomed too many, in fact.”
The prospect of an FN victory has put many centrist French on alert. The day after the controversial Minute magazine article appeared, Jean Manuel de Queiroz, a retired professor in Rennes, in Brittany, who works with the local centrist party attempting to gain seats in the city council, told the Monitor that openly racist attacks on Taubira were a worrying signal, even though racism is nothing new in France, or elsewhere. “It is symptomatic of the national mood,” he said, one that is characterized by a lack of hope that the mainstream right or the left, the two dominant parties in France, can make lives better.
That sentiment has been captured in polls all fall and winter long, showing that Coquerel's defense will be tested over and over as the political season nears.