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France's senior black politician finds her voice

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France's senior black politician finds her voice
"I've been getting monkey and banana insults for a long time but there is also something more subtle going on in France." Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP
17:39 CET+01:00
Despite being France's most prominent black politician, Christiane Taubira has stayed next to silent on race since becoming Justice Minister. But this week she broke her silence with an extraordinary interview that warned against the illusion of a post-racial France.

Who is Christiane Taubira?

She’s the 61-year-old current Justice Minister in France's Socialist government.

Born in Cayenne, French Guiana, to a modest family, she completed her studies in Paris.

Before she became Justice Minister in 2012 the divorced mother of four has also served as a deputy in the French National Assembly, as a Member of the European Parliament.

In 2002 she was the first black woman to run in the French presidential elections. In addition, she is the author of four books, three about the colonialism and the slave trade.

She is best known internationally for her passionate campaign to legalize gay marriage in France earlier this year.

Why is she in the news?

Last month, Taubira was twice publicly compared to a monkey.

Once by a group of children whose parents had taken them on a protest against gay marriage and again 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”.

This appeared to be the last straw for Justice Minister, who this week, in an extraordinary interview with left-leaning daily Liberation, sounded the alarm over what she described as the “rising tide of racism” in France.

These comments, she said, were in fact just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the hostility she has encountered since joining the Socialist government 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.

The problem, said the minister, in fact runs much deeper in French society.

"It is not about careless little slips of the tongue, it is much more serious than that. Inhibitions are disappearing, dykes have been breached.”

She referred to the way in which anti-gay marriage protesters had staged their protest by targeting her personally rather than the government as a whole and emphasizing the “Frenchness” of the protest.

How did her words go down?

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," he said.

The Justice Minister then publicly thanked them in parliament (see below), and received a rare standing ovation.

The minister also received support from Cameroonian author Leonora Miano who on Wednesday scooped France’s Femina literary prize.

“It’s not only the minister who is insulted, but all black people who are reduced to being animals (by this),” she said.

What’s she like?

Although famously severe in manner, the minister has also been known to show the occasional flash of good humour, at one time bursting into a fit of the giggles during a parliamentary debate on gay marriage.

How was she involved in the passing of the gay marriage law?

Undaunted by months of bitter opposition, the Justice Minister fought tooth and nail for the law, which was finally passed on May 17th.

Speaking in defence of the gay marriage bill in May, the passionate minister even resorted to poetry during a parliamentary debate on the issue.

“We are so proud of what we are doing that I want to define it through the words of the poet Léon-Gontran Damas. The act that we are going to achieve is as beautiful as a rose, who, in the shadows of a besieged Eiffel Tower at dawn see its petals open," she said.

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