France’s senior black politician finds her voice

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.

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

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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French court orders Twitter to reveal anti-hate speech efforts

A French court has ordered Twitter to give activists full access to all its documents relating to efforts to combat racism, sexism and other forms of hate speech on the social network.

French court orders Twitter to reveal anti-hate speech efforts
Photo: Alastair Pike | AFP

Six anti-discrimination groups had taken Twitter to court in France last year, accusing the US social media giant of “long-term and persistent” failures in blocking hateful comments from the site.

The Paris court ordered Twitter to grant the campaign groups full access to all documents relating to the company’s efforts to combat hate speech since May 2020. The ruling applies to Twitter’s global operation, not just France.

Twitter must hand over “all administrative, contractual, technical or commercial documents” detailing the resources it has assigned to fighting homophobic, racist and sexist discourse on the site, as well as “condoning crimes against humanity”.

The San Francisco-based company was given two months to comply with the ruling, which also said it must reveal how many moderators it employs in France to examine posts flagged as hateful, and data on the posts they process.

The ruling was welcomed by the Union of French Jewish Students (UEJF), one of the groups that had taken the social media giant to court.

“Twitter will finally have to take responsibility, stop equivocating and put ethics before profit and international expansion,” the UEJF said in a statement on its website.

Twitter’s hateful conduct policy bans users from promoting violence, or threatening or attacking people based on their race, religion, gender identity or disability, among other forms of discrimination.

Like other social media businesses it allows users to report posts they believe are hateful, and employs moderators to vet the content.

But anti-discrimination groups have long complained that holes in the policy allow hateful comments to stay online in many cases.

French prosecutors on Tuesday said they have opened an investigation into a wave of racist comments posted on Twitter aimed at members of the country’s national football team.

The comments, notably targeting Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, were posted after France was eliminated from the Euro 2020 tournament last week.

France has also been having a wider public debate over how to balance the right to free speech with preventing hate speech, in the wake of the controversial case of a teenager known as Mila.

The 18-year-old sparked a furore last year when her videos, criticising Islam in vulgar terms, went viral on social media.

Thirteen people are on trial accused of subjecting her to such vicious harassment that she was forced to leave school and was placed under police protection.

While President Emmanuel Macron is among those who have defended her right to blaspheme, left-wing critics say her original remarks amounted to hate speech against Muslims.