Speaking out for the first time over monkey taunts and other abuse she has suffered since taking office last year, Justice Minister Christiane Taubira on Wednesday voiced alarm over what she described as the collapse of a long-established social taboo on the use of overtly racist language in public debate.
"It is not about careless little slips of the tongue, it is much more serious than that," Taubira said in an extraordinarily frank interview with left-wing daily Libération. "Inhibitions are disappearing, dykes have been breached."
In the last month alone, Taubira has twice been publicly compared to a monkey, once by a group of children whose parents had taken them on a protest against gay marriage and once by an electoral candidate of the far right National Front, who wrote on her Facebook page that she would prefer to see the minister "swinging from the branches rather than in government."
And later that month, France's far-right National Front (FN) announced it would take legal action against Taubira over disparaging comments she made in response to the comments.
Taubira said those well-publicized incidents were only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the hostility she has encountered since she was named as one of the four most senior ministers in the Socialist government that took office last year.
"I've been getting monkey and banana insults for a long time but there is also something more subtle going on that nobody has highlighted," she said.
By way of example, the minister noted how the opponents of gay marriage had targeted her personally rather than the government as a whole and had emphasized the "Frenchness" of the protest movement.
She also pointed to the outspoken reactions that her initial appointment had provoked. These included Jean-Francois Cope, one of the leaders of the main opposition party, warning centre-right voters that: "If you vote for the FN, you get the Left and you get Taubira."
Responding to Taubira's comments on Wednesday, President Francois Hollande said everyone had to be more vigilant about the threat of racism, but Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault played down suggestions of a sea change in public attitudes.
"I'm convinced the vast majority of the French do not accept racism," Ayrault said.
Speaking in the National Assembly later on Wednesday, Taubira publicly singled out Ayrault and Hollande, thanking them for their support.
The French Guiana-born justice minister then received a rare standing ovation in France's National Assembly, as shown in this video.
Concern over rising racism shared by others Taubira's concern over a perceived increase in racism — or the acceptability of racism — in French society, echoes warnings issued recently by various rights groups and social commentators.
They fear a section of society is backing away from the vision of a multicultural France most famously embodied in the jubilant celebrations of the black-brown-white make-up of the 1998 World Cup winning side.
"There is something unprecedented about a government minister being attacked purely because of the colour of her skin," said Aline Le Bail-Kremer, a spokeswoman for the watchdog group SOS Racisme.
"The whole country should have stood up against it, but in reality the reaction has been lukewarm."
Figures compiled by the Interior Minister point to a sharp rise over the last year in the number of acts or threats deemed to be of a racist, anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim nature.
As always with such figures, it is not clear to what extent they represent an actual increase in racist incidents or an increased willingness of members of ethnic minorities to report them.
But both anecdotal and survey evidence point to a hardening of attitudes in the wake of this year's bitter debate over gay marriage, which divided France down the middle and introduced a new, virulent tone to the country's social and political debate.
A poll published last month to mark the 30th anniversary of a landmark march for the rights of second-generation Arabs found that 59 percent of the French believed racism had become more common in the intervening three decades.
The front page of Wednesday's edition of Le Parisien asked bluntly: "Is France becoming racist?"
Yes, the tabloid replied in an editorial. "A rancid odour is floating over France," it said. "Words, phrases and gestures that we thought belonged to another age are making a comeback."
Harry Roselmack, a black TV news presenter, agrees. "What pains me is how racism has been able to resist both time and the best of intentions, not just in the FN (National Front), but at the deepest levels of French society," Roselmack wrote in Le Monde this week.